An interview with Lothar Peter, conducted by Selim Nadi

Lothar Peter talking to students

Translated by Loren Balhorn

When it comes to West German contributions to Marxist theory, most people think of the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Yet just as influential, at least within the German-speaking world, was the ‘Marburg School’, which emerged in the early 1960s around the Marxist political scientist Wolfgang Abendroth at the University of Marburg. Abendroth and the other two members of the Marburg Triumvirate, Heinz Maus and Werner Hofmann, educated a generation of Marxist intellectuals who went on to dominate political science at the university for decades and in turn train hundreds of Marxist teachers and schools who continue to play a not negligible role in German intellectual debates to this day.

Long obscured from international debates due to a dearth of translations of its key publications, the Marburg School’s history was reintroduced to an English-speaking audience last year with the publication of Lothar Peter’s history of the school, Marx on Campus, in the Historical Materialism Book Series. Selim Nadi recently spoke with him about his own intellectual development, the history of the Marburg School, and his own place within it.

The interview originally appeared in French in Contretemps. Translation by Loren Balhorn.

Image: Wolfgang Abendroth addressing a student forum at the University of Marburg, 1972. (Photo: Dr Witich Rossmann)

Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual and political development?

I went to the University of Marburg in the early 1960s and first studied literature, but soon also political science with Wolfgang Abendroth. Like many other students, I was impressed not only by what he taught, but also his personality. Abendroth not only offered a substantially contrasting programme to the prevailing teachings of the day, but also captivated his audience with his combative attitude. As a resistance fighter and political prisoner, he had experienced the brutality of the Nazi regime first-hand but never capitulated to his torturers. He thus represented an absolute exception in the West German academic landscape – yet he was not publicly respected or honoured at the time, but, on the contrary, fought and slandered.

I encountered Georg Lukács while studying literature and political science. This was not the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, but Lukács the literary sociologist who opened up a completely new perspective on literature, its social conditionality and function. Suddenly I learned that Hölderlin not only wrote aesthetically subtle poems, but that his novels, such as Hyperion or The Death of Empedocles, cannot really be comprehended without taking the influence of the French Revolution into account. My new orientation towards Lukács led to my exclusion from a Hölderlin seminar, as my insubordinate questions disturbed the consecrated mood cultivated there.

Afterwards, I primarily studied political science and sociology. Under Abendroth’s influence, a group of assistants, doctoral candidates, and students emerged, all of whom came from SDS, which in 1968 became the driving force behind the student movement in the Federal Republic. SDS had two main currents, the ‘anti-authoritarians’ and the ‘traditionalists’. The strong Marburg group belonged to the latter, and thus I did as well. We had learned from Abendroth that intellectuals must seek a connection with the workers’ movement – its left wing, to be precise – if their socialist perspective was to be realistic. I therefore also participated intensively in trade-union education work alongside my SDS membership.

It was during this period, in the mid-1960s, that I began to read Marx, initially his early writings. I also discovered in Jean-Paul Sartre a dimension of intellectual commitment, the inextricable link between personal ‘choice’ – that is to say, non-delegable individual responsibility – and political partisanship that I had not yet encountered in this resoluteness.

With the collapse of the student movement – I had become a doctoral student under Abendroth in the meantime – I gradually approached the German Communist Party, or DKP, which was re-founded in 1968 due to the ongoing ban on the original Communist Party, the KPD, dating back to 1956. In contrast to the numerous ultra-left K-Gruppen, the DKP could rely on a considerable number of politically active workers.

In 1970, while still a student, I wrote and edited the book Die neue Arbeiterklasse together with Frank Deppe and Hellmuth Lange, which was published by the renowned Europäische Verlagsanstalt in Frankfurt am Main. After my doctorate supervised by Abendroth and Heinz Maus, a sociologist and another representative of the Marburg School, I worked as an assistant at the University of Paris, the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III), at the Institut d'Allemand in 1971–2. The director was Pierre Bertaux, a specialist in German Studies, a prominent member of the resistance, and a leading officer of the national police in France after 1945 who returned to the university after being dismissed due to a scandal – he had vouched for a bandit’s honour. During my time as an assistant in Paris, I worked intensively with the CGT on a voluntary basis and had good contacts to French Communists.

Beginning in 1970, I also worked closely with the DKP’s scientific institute, the Institut für Marxistische Studien und Forschungen (IMSF) in Frankfurt, where I published many of my articles, including a study on French trade unions during the Mitterrand era. In 1972, I was appointed as a sociologist at the left-leaning Bremen ‘Reform University’, where, now a DKP member, I formed a highly active political group that existed for almost two decades together with the outstanding Marxist economist Jörg Huffschmid, philosopher Hans Jörg Sandkühler, sociologist Susanne Schunter-Kleeman, and others. For a long time, I taught at the DKP’s Betriebsarbeiterschule (factory workers’ school) in Bremen, where the party was relatively strong.

After the collapse of state socialism, I left the DKP and have remained independent of any party ever since, but later on I served as an academic trustee at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, which is close to the party Die Linke. I also wrote in left-wing publications such as Z., Das Argument, and Sozialismus. Scientifically, I now tried to bring Marxist theory and other theories of social critique – above all Pierre Bourdieu’s but also those of ‘left’ communitarianism (Charles Taylor) and feminism – closer together. My intellectual affinity with France has remained unextinguished since my early readings of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty.

Why call this current the ‘Marburg School’? Its founder, Wolfgang Abendroth, was undoubtedly a famous personality, but can one really speak of a ‘school’? What was the relationship between the Marburg intellectuals and Marxism more generally?

Abendroth was, without doubt, not only the outstanding charismatic personality of the University of Marburg but of the intellectual Left in West Germany as a whole. While Horkheimer and Adorno in Frankfurt may have met with greater resonance in intellectual discourse, Abendroth far surpassed the Frankfurters as an inspiration, tribune, and analyst of social and political struggles. The fact that the left-wing Marburg School – there was also a neo-Kantian ‘Marburg School’ around Hermann Cohen at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century – is often referred to as the ‘Abendroth School’ can be explained by his enormous charisma.

Despite Abendroth’s prominence, there are several reasons that justify speaking of a ‘Marburg School’. Abendroth was not alone, but rather part of the so-called ‘Triumvirate’ of Marxist thought in Marburg together with the sociologists Werner Hofmann and Heinz Maus. A circle of young Marxist social scientists formed around this ‘Triumvirate’, whose influence on teaching and scholarship in Marburg grew considerably beginning in the mid-1960s. Even after Abendroth’s retirement, the work of young Marxists continued at the University of Marburg for decades.

Abendroth’s understanding of Marxism was primarily shaped by his activity in the socialist workers’ movement. The theoreticians of the ‘united front’ between Communists and Social Democrats in the interwar period, August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler, played an important role. To the end of his life, the notion of the united front served as the compass of his political thinking and action. In Hofmann’s case, the acquisition of Marxist theory occurred largely along the path of intensive critical engagement with bourgeois economics, whereas Heinz Maus was primarily oriented towards Marx through the ideology-critical discourse of Max Horkheimer and the ‘Frankfurt School’. Coming from Frankfurt, Karl Hermann (Kay) Tjaden developed his own historical-materialist social analysis in Marburg, constituting a counterpoint to the systems theory of Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, and others.

The group of assistants, doctoral students, and co-workers around Abendroth included several scholars, like the renowned fascism researcher Reinhard Kühnl, who became university instructors themselves and taught critiques of fascism and capitalism to hundreds, if not thousands of students, especially future teachers. A group emerged from the previously rather pluralistic circle of students in the mid-1960s that began to advocate explicitly Marxist positions. Among them were Kay Tjaden, Margarete Tjaden-Steinhauer, Frank Deppe, Dieter Boris, Georg Fülberth and others, including me.

Heinz Maus, a former student of Max Horkheimer, was offered a professorship of sociology in Marburg in 1960 with Abendroth’s support. This strengthened Abendroth’s position, while the influence of socially critical and Marxist thought within Marburg sociology grew at the same time. Despite their different personalities, Abendroth and Maus – an excellent connoisseur of French sociology – shared political similarities and a collegial relationship. Relations between the Abendroth Institute and the ‘Sociological Seminar’ were quite close. They grew even closer when Werner Hofmann was appointed to a second chair of sociology in Marburg in 1966. With his appointment, Marxist thought at the University of Marburg underwent a further upswing. Although quite different from Abendroth, Werner Hofmann was also an impressive personality – albeit not entirely free of patriarchal traits. Nevertheless, he made a lasting impression on students. Abendroth also cooperated with him, and there was intensive exchange between the two institutes both professionally and personally.

Kay Tjaden, probably the most brilliant student of the ‘first Abendroth generation’, completed his doctorate under Abendroth but then became an academic councillor in sociology where he received a professorship in 1970, succeeding Werner Hofmann who died far too early in 1969. Later professors who completed their doctorates under Abendroth went into sociology temporarily or permanently. I describe this to show that sociology had played a role in conveying Marxist thought in Marburg since the mid-1960s. That is why I consider it justified, indeed necessary, to speak of a ‘Marburg’ rather than an ‘Abendroth School’. Moreover, Marxist scholarship, teaching, and political commitment in Marburg did not cease after Hofmann’s death, Abendroth’s retirement in 1972, or Maus’s retirement in 1976.

In Marx on Campus, you write that the ‘first phase of the Marburg School developed in the context of the reconstruction, stabilisation, and expansion of capitalist relations of property and production’ in West Germany after World War II. Can you explain the importance of the West German economic and social context for the development of the Marburg School?

The economic, social, and political development of the Federal Republic of Germany since the 1950s was characterized by the so-called ‘Miracle on the Rhine’, the political integration of the West, and the hegemony of the reactionary Adenauer regime, which partly began to take on characteristics of an authoritarian chancellor dictatorship. At the same time, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) drifted to the right step by step. With the ‘Godesberg Programme’ in 1959, the SPD finally made its peace with West German capitalism and transformed itself from a ‘class party’ into a ‘people’s party’. The KPD, the remaining fundamental opposition for the time being, was banned in 1956 – its members persecuted, condemned, and imprisoned by the thousands. This should always be remembered when the Federal Republic tries to act as a guardian of democracy and human rights today.

Despite the dominance of the ruling right-wing Adenauer bloc, the continuity of former Nazis in institutions, and anti-Communism as an unofficial state ideology, there were a few enclaves of anti-fascist attitudes within the political elite. This was true, for example, of the Social Democratic Minister-President of Hessia, Georg-August Zinn, without whom Abendroth’s appointment would not have been possible.

The fact that, in a country contaminated by anti-Communism in the middle of the ‘Cold War’, a resistance fighter and socialist intellectual received a professorship in deeply reactionary Marburg, where the fascist Martin Heidegger had once taught, was tantamount to a political miracle. For years, Abendroth remained the only Marxist holding a university chair in West Germany, combining his academic work with a decisive commitment to building the Left in the Federal Republic. Although the SPD refrained from fundamental criticism of the West German social system, its members and voters had not yet lost their class character. This was an important point of departure for Abendroth’s educational work, which was primarily oriented towards the left-wing social-democratic and trade-union forces that were still present.

Where did Wolfgang Abendroth stand in the political and theoretical landscape of West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s? Who were the other important personalities at the beginning of the Marburg School?

Compared with other schools of social science, Abendroth found himself in a downright depressing minority position in the 1950s. This did not, however, dampen his élan or his courage. Until the 1960s, the West German academic scene was dominated by the state-oriented ‘Freiburg School’ in political science, the empirically oriented ‘Cologne School’ in sociology, the conservative social anthropological thinking of Arnold Gehlen, the integration sociology of Helmut Schelsky, etc., and from outside by American structural functionalism. Marxism appeared before this academic horizon as a threat and a relapse into totalitarianism. Abendroth stood alone in Marburg until 1960. Moreover, he had been expelled from the SPD for supporting the party’s student union, SDS, which was in conflict with the party leadership.

Only to the extent that the first generation of his students, such as Reinhard Kühnl, Kay Tjaden, Arno Klönne, and others became academically and politically active themselves did Abendroth’s isolation begin to loosen somewhat. I already mentioned Heinz Maus and Werner Hofmann. Hofmann in particular stood out with impressive scholarly achievements. Coming from the field of economics, he built a bridge to sociology and distinguished himself with his profound criticism of the unhistorical and apologetic character of contemporary economics, his studies of the Soviet employment regime, and the sociology of Stalinism and anti-Communism.

Like Abendroth, Hofmann was an impressive speaker. At the end of his life, cut short by his tragic early death, he attempted to create an electoral alliance including the Communists for the 1969 parliamentary elections: the Aktion Demokratischer Fortschritt (ADF). Despite the support of prominent intellectuals like Ernst Bloch, Martin Niemöller, and Martin Walser, the ADF was a failure. It only managed to win just under 200,000 votes.

Although Heinz Maus remained more or less in the background, he certainly had his merits academically and supported the fight against the Emergency Acts, which shaped the political climate in the mid-1960s. His contribution to the ‘prehistory of empirical social research’ is still standard social science literature in Germany today.

What were intellectual relations like between the Marburg and Frankfurt schools? In Marx on Campus you write that the differences between the two mainly concerned three points: the question of capitalism and class relations, the debate around the student movement, and finally their respective understandings of science. Could you delve into that a bit further?

 At first glance, it seems surprising that relations between the Marburg and Frankfurt schools remained weak and sporadic. Two schools based on Marx, in the midst of an ocean of pro-capitalist and anti-socialist ideology – also and especially in the universities of the Federal Republic. One could expect that both schools would have worked together closely, carrying out shared projects and jointly defending themselves in solidarity against attacks.

But this was not the case. Although the representatives of both schools had suffered Nazi persecution, albeit individually in very different ways, no productive cooperation took place. Too great were the differences on questions of principle. The Frankfurters believed that technological progress had undermined Marx’s theory of surplus value, meaning that the working class could no longer be considered a ‘revolutionary subject’. The Marburgers, by contrast, held fast to the contradiction between capital and labour as the foundation of social change.

Added to this was their differing attitudes towards the student movement in 1968. With the exception of Herbert Marcuse, who lived in the US, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas – although they had inspired the movement – feared the students’ actions would have totalitarian consequences. Habermas even went so far as to accuse them of ‘left-wing fascism’. The Marburgers, on the other hand, despite their criticism of the students’ provocative techniques and revolutionary behaviour, emphasised the movement’s overall progressive function.

Ultimately, the two schools had different understandings of science. For the Frankfurters, the alienating and reifying character of ‘late capitalism’ stood in the foreground, whereas the Marburgers sought, in a more traditional Marxist manner, to derive possibilities for political change from a ‘real analysis’ of social development. In the words of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, one could say that the Frankfurters practiced an ‘artistic critique’, while the Marburgers pursued ‘social critique’.

However, both schools also shared certain deficits. Neither school formulated anything substantial on the problems of gender relations and ‘masculine domination’ (Pierre Bourdieu), the ecological crisis, or conditions in the ‘Third World’. This only began to change – at least in part – in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, it was Abendroth who habilitated Jürgen Habermas in 1961 in Marburg, because Habermas was ‘too left-wing’ for the two protagonists of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno.

How did the Marburg intellectuals relate to the parties of the Left in West Germany, such as the DKP?

 The actors of the Marburg School criticised the system-compliant orientation of Social Democracy and the majority of the trade unions on the one hand, while seeking to find common ground with left-wing Social Democrats and trade unionists on the other. That was extremely difficult. There were good contacts with the DKP from the very beginning. The DKP advocated an ‘anti-monopoly democracy’ (similar to the PCF’s démocratie avancée). In contrast to the numerous ultra-left groups and parties post-1968, some of which adopted the KPD’s ‘social fascism’ thesis from the late Weimar Republic, the DKP advocated an alliance of all left-wing forces. Although it never counted more than 40–45,000 members, it represented a politically relevant factor for the left wing of the West German workers’ movement. It was the party most feared and fought against by the ruling class.

Criticism of the ultra-left, usually Maoist groups and parties was part of the Marburgers’ self-understanding, but did not play a primary role. The debate with Social Democracy and the defence of the principle of the Einheitsgewerkschaft (one big union), which also included Communists, was much more prominent.

A few words about the relationship of the Marburg Marxists to the DKP: almost all of them worked more or less closely with the DKP’s research institute in Frankfurt, the IMSF, whose director Professor Josef Schleifstein had been abused by the Gestapo as a young Jewish Communist and was later able to emigrate to England. Abendroth and others from Marburg, including me, were members of the IMSF’s academic advisory board for years.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Marburg School turned to new problems, especially with Reinhard Kühnl’s work on fascism. What was special about Kühnl’s position – whose books, despite their importance, have still not been translated? Beyond his work on interwar fascism, Kühnl wrote a study on the neo-fascist National Democratic Party (Die NPD. Struktur, Ideologie und Funktion einer neofaschistischen Partei) with Rainer Rilling and Christine Sager in 1969, which was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. As you write in Marx on Campus, this publication can be explained above all by the success of the NPD in the mid-1960s. What was the methodological particularity of this study?

The fascism debate was already one of the main focuses of the Marburg School during the Abendroth era – that is, until 1972. Abendroth gave lectures on German ‘National Socialism’ and several of his doctoral students studied the resistance. Reinhard Kühnl himself received his doctorate under Abendroth with a dissertation on the ‘left wing’ of the Nazi Party. As an academic instructor, Kühnl was enormously successful pedagogically and very popular with students. His lectures always attracted a large audience. Later, his studies on fascism reached print runs of up to 200,000 copies. The fact that Kühnl, together with Christine Sager and Rainer Rilling, published an analysis of the neo-fascist NPD with the renowned Suhrkamp publishing house in 1969 underlines the operative character of the Marburg School’s academic work.

The NPD achieved spectacular success in several elections beginning in the mid-1960s. With their book, Kühnl and his co-authors provided a well-founded analysis and answer to the question of what the NPD actually was and how its worrying rise could be explained. They were not content with the usual interpretation of intellectual history, as exemplified by Ernst Nolte’s The Three Faces of Fascism. Rather, Kühnl and his co-authors chose a complex research approach that established connections between the different levels of the NPD phenomenon. The study used a number of methodological means such as primary source analysis, empirical social research, investigation of socio-structural changes, and took differing theories into account. This ‘mix of methods’ was innovative for the Marburg School, but was hardly continued later on.

I would also point out Kühnl’s involvement in the so-called Historikerstreit in the mid-1980s, which became a political issue of the first order in the Federal Republic. While conservative historians such as Ernst Nolte, Michael Stürmer, and Andreas Hillgruber sought to relativize the total terror of fascism as a logical reaction to Communism, thereby trivialising it, Jürgen Habermas in particular contradicted this position decisively. Kühnl sided with Habermas on many points, but at the same time criticised his idealisation of the Federal Republic’s ties to the West.

What other research topics were particularly important for the Marburg School in the 1970s and 1980s?

The 1970s marked a turning point for the Marburg School in that Abendroth retired in 1972 – Hofmann had already died in 1969 – and Heinz Maus was hardly ever seen again prior to his retirement in 1976. But their former students and staff who, like Kühnl, Tjaden, Deppe, Boris, and Fülberth had been offered chairs in political science or sociology at the University of Marburg, intensively and unwaveringly continued the work of the Abendroth, Hofmann, and Maus ‘Triumvirate’ despite fierce hostilities within and beyond the academic sphere.

Tjaden worked on a system-theoretical foundation of historical materialism, Kühnl continued to work on the study of fascism, Deppe devoted himself to Marxist trade union analysis, and Fülberth to the history of German Social Democracy. Peter Römer continued Abendroth’s work on constitutional law. Dieter Boris created a new focus in the Marburg School with his studies of Latin America. Following the ‘epochal rupture’ in 1990, Fülberth posed the question of why ‘actually existing socialism’ had failed. That said, both he and the other representatives of the post-Abendroth generation held fast to the necessity of a socialist alternative.

As signs of crisis in post-Fordist capitalism grew more prevalent, the thinking of the Marburg School also met with growing resonance. Fülberth attracted a great deal of attention with his original study G Strich – Kleine Geschichte des Kapitalismus in 2004, at least among the Left. Frank Deppe’s wide-ranging presentation of political thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also found many readers. With Bolívars Erben, published in 2014, Dieter Boris put out what is probably the most thorough analysis of the now-interrupted growth of the Latin American Left available in the German language.

Can you comment on the controversy between the journal Das Argument, particularly its founding editor Wolfgang Fritz Haug, and some Marburg School authors? In what sense did it represent a disagreement regarding the ‘identity’ of Marxism?

Beginning in the 1960s, Wolfgang Fritz Haug’s journal Das Argument was for a long time the most influential, highest-quality left-wing periodical in the Federal Republic. Marburgers like Tjaden, Deppe, Steinhaus, and Boris also published articles in it. The relationship began to sour when the Marburgers approached the DKP on the one hand, while, on the other, the Argument editors argued for a ‘pluralistic Marxism’ constituting a mosaic of different Marxist points of view. This attitude on the part of Das Argument implied a sometimes harsh rejection of any orthodoxy in Marxism, but politically it was directed above all against the DKP and Marxism in the countries of ‘actually existing socialism’, and particularly against intellectuals who were close to or members of the DKP.

Nevertheless, the critical reflections from Haug and other Argument authors held numerous insights concerning the ‘identity’ of Marxism that would have been worthy of thorough examination by the Marburgers. What does ‘scientific socialism’ mean? Can there be a hegemonic actor in the Marxist movement? Is Marxism as a closed scientific system possible? What does the ‘identity of Marxism’ mean for intellectuals? In 1984 representatives of the Marburg School – especially the philosopher Hans Heinz Hölz, who taught in Marburg for several years – responded to these and other questions with what were sometimes extremely dogmatic reflexes. I myself was also partly responsible for the intensification of antagonisms between the Marburg School and Das Argument.

The violent animosities disappeared after 1990, and afterwards I myself wrote in Argument several times. In 2002, for example, Frank Deppe and I participated in a discussion project initiated by Wolfgang Fritz Haug and Frigga Haug, which was then published as a book under the title Unterhaltungen über den Sozialismus nach seinem Verschwinden.

To what extent does the Marburg School still exist?

As I described above, the Marburg School continued to exist for more than three decades after Abendroth’s retirement in 1972. But what has remained of it today? Fülberth, Boris, and Deppe continue to stand out with numerous publications, lectures and statements. They participate, for example, as speakers at the ‘Marxist Week’ that takes place annually at different locations in the Federal Republic and is attended by a predominantly younger audience, such as members of the Die Linke student organisation. Yet at the university itself, only John Kallankulam continues to represent Marxist thought as a professor in the social sciences. He, however, came to Marburg from the Frankfurt School milieu.

Students of the post-Abendroth generation such as Klaus Dörre, who built up a renowned stronghold of German sociology in Jena, and the political scientist Hans Jürgen Bieling in Tübingen are active as professors, while some of Frank Deppe’s students try to strengthen the left current in their organisations as trade union functionaries. Many former students of the Marburg Marxists now work as school teachers, where they act as disseminators of what they learned during their studies in Marburg.

The representatives of the post-Abendroth generation participate in international Marxist debates and maintain contacts with their protagonists. In this respect, the Marburg School’s influence on socio-critical and left-wing political thought continues in one form or another today.