Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

"1968" in Finland Risto Alapuro
1968 in 2018: The Resonance of a Rebellious Year Donatella della Porta
1968 - Revolution of Perception Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey
Permanent Reflection and Inclusion Boosts. The Heritage of the Generation of 1968 Armin Nassehi
Resistance, Transgression, Freedom Csaba Szaló
May 68: The Debate Continues! Michel Wieviorka
The Past in Action: Memories of 1968 in the Italian and Spanish Student Movements Lorenzo Zamponi

Permanent Reflection and Inclusion Boosts. The Heritage of the Generation of 1968

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018

Armin Nassehi, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

What do we mean, when we speak of “1968”? At first sight it is the year between 1967 and 1969, but in the public self-description of Western society “1968” is a cipher for a respective change in society after World War II in the U.S., in Western Europe, in Japan, not to forget the ČSSR. Especially in Germany, the student protest movement from the summer of 1967 until 1969 is something we can call a very important marker of public memory. In the public memory of Germany, 1968 is a cipher for the liberalisation of culture, for overcoming traditions and not least for a democratisation of the political system. Maybe these descriptions are right, but they do not describe what really happened in these years. The special power of this narrative can be measured by the use and the recognition of this cipher, as when Conservative parties, such as the Bavarian political party CSU, or the right wing party AfD, and also public intellectuals such as the writer Botho Strauss or the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski repeatedly postulate to overcome 1968, and to break the power of the generation of 1968 and its so-called leftist mainstream ideas. [1]

Those who fight “1968” are a clear hint of the importance of this marker for the self-description of Germany. But from a sociological point of view, we have to clarify what we mean by “1968”. There are two possible ways to think about it. One is to mention the concrete actions of the students’ protests and their publicly visible provocation of the German public sphere and the political system. The other is to think about the social preconditions of these protests and, more importantly, the social changes from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s. These two possible ways of thinking are interconnected, because the student protests can be regarded as an outcome of a special generational experience in the sense of Karl Mannheim’s theory of generations. [2]

It is a myth that the student protests were a generational conflict between the Nazi generation and a new generation, one that asked for explanations and public investigation of this special German history. In order to look for the intellectual background and precondition of the changes in the 1960s, it might be reasonable not only to read the documents the movement referred to directly, for example Marxist writings, or the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno. For me, one of the key documents to understanding the intellectual circumstances of the generation of 1968 is a paper by Helmut Schelsky, one of the most influential sociologists of that time and later one of the most significant critics of the protesters at German universities and their intellectual outcomes. In this influential paper, published in 1957 in a journal of protestant ethics, the conservative sociologist Schelsky asked if permanent reflection can be institutionalised. [3] His starting point was the experience that in the churches, especially the protestant churches, believers increasingly were not willing to believe without questions. Schelsky observed that believing in religious contents was increasingly combined with permanent reflections. The faithful did not accept answers, but they had questions. Beginning with these empirical findings, Schelsky argued with, and against, the conservative sociologist and philosopher Arnold Gehlen, one of the most prominent and sharpest opponents of the leftist intellectual movement at the time. His intellectual clashes with e.g. Jürgen Habermas are legendary. [4] In a nutshell, Gehlen’s fundamental criticism of modern culture asserts that life forms lack a stable environment with unquestionable practical, intellectual, and cultural focal points. Gehlen’s criticism of modernity culminates in the diagnosis that human beings require stable institutions to survive. Eventually, permanent reflection would cause social instability and dissatisfaction. [5]

Schelsky followed this diagnosis, but remarked that Gehlen’s thinking would inevitably lead into a radical conservative and restorative picture of modernity and would fail to evaluate the present situation empirically. But he complied with Gehlen’s theory of institutions by asking if the permanent reflection itself could be institutionalised. This is a rather interesting question as Schelsky on the one hand follows the diagnosis of a social change in the communicative practices of society. On the other hand he acknowledges that this change allows new questions to arise about how to deal with more complex situations which necessarily occur when everything can be queried, even religious faith and practices in churches and parishes.

Schelsky did not only have churches or religion in mind, however, his diagnosis also covers practices in science and universities, in education, in culture, arts, and in political areas. But Schelsky’s solution and answer to his question – if permanent reflection can be institutionalised – is not a fundamental refusal of Gehlen’s theory, but a rejection of his diagnosis. Schelsky gives a positive answer to his question – a quite paradoxical answer. As the function of Gehlen’s idea of institutions is the prevention of too much communication and the establishment of unquestionable rules and conventions, Schelsky suggests seeing communication itself as the basis of a necessary institutionalisation. His solution sounds like this: What has to be institutionalised is conversation, or as he puts it: real conversation (“das echte Gespräch”). He thinks that conversation and the communicative liquefaction, as Jürgen Habermas has put it later, [6] has to become expected, and that people should learn to change their own thinking and ideas and to deal with their own insecurities by conversation.

What Schelsky had in mind is the institutionalisation of chances for communication, that is, not to separate actors, but to bind them – to each other and to their own motifs and reasons. Beyond Schelsky’s own ideas, his famous paper is more than the solution for a theoretical problem to reconstruct the increase of communication in terms of institution theory. When we read this paper as a historical document, it can be interpreted as a hint at the basic generational experience of those we subsume under the cipher of the generation of 1968. In all societal fields, but especially in the secondary and tertiary education sectors, communication, conversation, argumentation, debating and deliberating have experienced a burst of growth. So it is not a chance development that the 1968-movement in Germany had its starting point in the education system – unlike for example France, where the protests of 1968 had wider support in the population, or unlike the U.S., where the student movement can be regarded as a secondary movement within the civil rights movement. So, my fundamental claim is that the concrete and visible protest events, which happened in the universities and on the streets, were not the reason for the respective changes in society, but rather the effect of boosts of inclusion in German society.

The fundamental “1968”-changes in German society took place in the 1970s, after the visible movement had ended and its organisations, for example the socialist students’ association, terminated. “1968” was not an explicit left revolution, even though its most visible speakers used the semantics of revolution and fundamental system changes. Parts of this were undoubtedly pop-cultural forms and the posturings of protest. But the sociologically more important point is the question concerning the sustainable and long lasting effects of this time. Although explicitly left revolutionary changes in society did not happen, nevertheless the public agenda can be described as implicitly left. I use this term to highlight what I want to call inclusion boosts since the beginning of the 1960s with a peak in the 1970s. [again: 2] More and more parts of the population got the chance to benefit from economic growth and performance, the educational sector was growing enormously, public support programmes enabled lower social classes to achieve high school graduation, universities and technical colleges were founded all over Germany, the education programmes based on the idea of enabling pupils to communicate and be self-confident. Gender-roles were called into question, public deliberation became institutionalised, the pluralisation of life-forms took place, and so on. This list of characteristic changes in society could be extended. What all these points have in common is a trend of permanent reflection and the questioning of social structures, as can be seen in the increasing influence of social science discourse in public debates. I call all this an implicit left development, because it was the agenda for most of the public policy programmes, regardless of the question about whether there are more social-democratic or conservative governments in charge.

The institutionalisation of permanent reflection is the lasting heritage of the generation of 1968 – it is not the outcome of the narrow actions of revolutionary posturing, but the outcome of a prospering and complex society, which has developed a need for inclusion boosts into the performance areas of society. There were economic, cultural, scientific, and educational opportunities for a modernisation of society – a historical time frame that the British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “Golden Age”. [7]

Doubtlessly, these developments of permanent reflection have made life more difficult – something Helmut Schelsky foresaw in the late 1950s. So, in my interpretation, the second and the third lasting heritages of this time are pop-culture and moralisation. Both are phenomena which are able to unburden actors from permanent reflection, at least temporarily. Pop-culture provided this generation with body-centred experiences without the need for reflection; and moralisation is a communication style which is able to compensate for the reflexive and operative question of goal attainment. These suggestions may be sufficient here. The most important heritage of course is permanent reflection – this is something society will not get rid of, and, it is of course, an advance which modern Western societies can attribute to the generation of 1968. That permanent reflection often is not only a solution, but can also cause stress, may explain the moralised communication style of this generation and the discharge function of pop-culture.

[1] Nassehi, Armin (2018): Das letzte Fundament. Eine Antwort auf Rüdiger Safranski. Der Spiegel No. 13, 24.03.2018.
[2] Nassehi, Armin (2018): Gab es 1968? Eine Spurensuche, Hamburg: kursbuch.edition.
[3] Schelsky, Helmut (1957): Ist die Dauerreflexion institutionalisierbar? Zum Thema einer modernen Religionssoziologie. Zeitschrift für evan­gelische Ethik 1, pp. 153–174.
[4] Habermas Jürgen (1970): Nachgeahmte Substanzialität. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Arnold Gehlens Ethik. Merkur 24, Issue 264, pp 313-327.
[5] Gehlen, Arnold (1956): Urmensch und Spätkultur. Philosophische Ergebnisse und Aussagen. Bonn.
[6] Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between facts and norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy, Cambridge: MIT Press.
[7] Hobsbawm, Eric (1994): The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991. London: Penguin.