Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Street fighter turned salesman

(February 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.249, February 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman looks at the political life of Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer

‘Joschka Fischer – we knew him as the stick man. He’d stand at the back of meetings and hand out sticks for breaking windows on demonstrations.’ So a German socialist told me two years ago. By then Fischer was German foreign minister, and enthusing over the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo by Nato planes using bombs that were tipped with depleted uranium.

I assumed the story about Fischer was, to say the least, somewhat exaggerated – as the best stories often are. But then last month reports from Germany suggested there might be more truth to it than I first thought. Fischer was a witness in the trial of someone accused of an armed attack on an Opec ministers’ meeting in Vienna 25 years ago, and in the course of the trial a photo appeared in the press, supposedly showing him as a helmeted demonstrator attacking a policeman. This produced screams of outrage about the ‘violent past’ of the foreign minister from those sections of the German press sympathetic to the opposition Christian Democrats (Tories) – as if somehow the few bruises to a policeman a quarter of a century ago are in the same league as the horrendous deaths he helped cause in Serbia and Kosovo recently.

His past should, however, be of interest to people involved in the anti-capitalist movements today for the experiences which radicalised him at one point in his life were very similar to those which have been radicalising people since Seattle. He told the court how he was committed to non-violence until an Easter 1968 rally. This was immediately after the attempted assassination by the German student leader Rudi Dutschke. Fischer was lying on the ground and asked himself, ‘Why always let yourself be hit?’ After that, he tells, ‘We decided to defend ourselves.’

His reaction was very similar to that of many thousands of young people across the world at the time. Liberals, social democrats and pacifists saw horrors like the war in Vietnam or the assassination of Martin Luther King in the US, and proclaimed themselves ‘revolutionaries’ en masse. There was, however, an argument everywhere about what it means to be revolutionary.

Some of us argued that the key to fighting back successfully against the system was reaching out from the relatively narrow milieux involved in the existing protest movement to sink roots among the great mass of the world’s people who suffered from the system in their everyday lives – especially the rapidly expanding ranks of the world’s working class.

The often more popular response was to simply see things in terms of the existing movements becoming more militant. This was the path Fischer followed. He did not carry the idea to its logical conclusion, as did those people who took to planting bombs or shooting prominent ruling class figures – the path of the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Weathermen in the US. But he did opt to join the ranks of what was known as the Frankfurt Spontis.

This group, whose leading figure was Dany Cohn-Bendit, combined the belief that somehow China was socialist with a hostility to ‘Leninist’ organisation. In practice this meant it rejected attempts to carry revolutionary socialist political argument into the organised working class. Instead it glorified in the ‘spontaneity’ of an already radicalised minority whose protests turned into street fighting with the police. Its approach exacerbated an already existing trend in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Revolutionaries tended to inhabit ‘red’ ghettos confined to the universities of cities like Frankfurt and Berlin. The Spontis simply extended the ghettos a little to encompass groups like squatters.

People soon found in practice that street fighting by an isolated radical minority could not budge German capitalism. They began to feel something more was needed. Groups like the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Fraction emerged – and were regarded with respect by many of the street fighting milieux. They seemed to be the ones who were taking seriously the notion of confrontation with the system. But precisely because they too were a minority, the state found it easy to destroy them. The Red Army Fraction, the Weathermen and the Red Brigades were all crushed mercilessly.

Many of the leading Spontis and autonomists followed a different path. The minority, they reasoned, could not change society violently, and therefore it had to pursue what Rudi Dutschke called ‘the long march through the institutions’. The street fighters in leather jackets and jeans had to become the Green parliamentary candidates in leather jackets and jeans, organised in a ‘non-hierarchical’ fashion. And when they found they could not get more than about 5 percent of the vote (the level needed to get parliamentary seats in Germany), Fischer told them that they had to break with ‘fundamentalism’ and become ‘realist Greens’. They embraced a hierarchical form of organisation, abandoned any residual hostility to capitalism, donned suits or took to power dressing, collaborated with right wing social democrats, and, eventually, joined governments prepared to engage in the sort of imperialist violence that had once so enraged them.

The story is worth telling today because we can see some of the same trends at work in the new anti-capitalist movements. People beaten and teargassed by the state are having again to think through how a radical minority can act effectively. And again the easy answer can be that of simply being better prepared to use more militant tactics on demonstrations.

In the US the misnamed ‘Black Block’ of hardline (almost all white) anarchists has tried to give the impression that it is the most serious force on the successor demonstrations to Seattle, while in Europe the neo-autonomist organisation Ya Basta!, with its Michelin man like demonstration gear, presents itself as the model others should follow.

Both fail to understand that demonstrations do exactly what the name implies – they demonstrate our hostility to the system. They act as a focus for discontent, as a way of drawing together people with differing discontents. But they cannot in themselves break the hold of the system, however militant and well organised they are – unless, that is, the movement finds ways of involving the vast mass of working people who, at the moment, are still standing on the sidelines (or, more likely, watching us on television).

‘Street Fighting Man’ may look heroic. But it is only ‘Mass Organising Person’ who can really take on the system.

They donned suits, collaborated with social democrats and joined the government

Last updated on 26 December 2009