Mole and Mentor
Celebrating “1968” as a kind of 40th jubilee, or even as a kind of archaic retrospective on turbulent times, is not the way Oskar Negt goes about doing things. For him it is more important to focus seriously on the events of the late 60s and on “those things that started to roll due to the undercover activities of a mole”, as he wrote in his book Achtundsechzig. Politische Intellektuelle und die Macht (Sixty-eight – Political Intellectuals and Power) that was published in 1995.
Oskar Negt was born in Kapkeim near Königsberg (Kaliningrad) in 1934. He first read law and philosophy at Göttingen and then moved on to do philosophy and sociology at Frankfurt. At that time he was already a committed member of the SDS (Socialist German Student Union) and under the auspices of the union he set up a task group in which he and other members of the SDS from different generations devoted themselves to the critical revision of traditional Marxist thought.
In 1962 Oskar Negt did his doctorate under Theodor W. Adorno. Afterwards he worked as an assistant to Jürgen Habermas until he was appointed to the sociology chair at the University of Hanover, which he held until he retired in 2002.
The mentor of the protest movement
At a time when there were hardly any Marxist professors working at universities, when “under the academic gowns the musty fug of the last 1000 years” seemed to be firmly entrenched, Oskar Negt publicly supported the rebellious students. This helped him to establish an authority that enabled him to critically accompany the mood and activities of the emerging student movement and to maintain a certain distance that even today still allows him to acknowledge and defend the utopian ideas of 1968.
Oskar Negt views himself, i.e. his own political socialisation that was influenced by the SPD party and the trade unions, more as a “58er”, as a mentor, as an “active accompaniment to the events; someone who helps with ideas and suggestions, who interferes in political debates and above all as someone who, both in speeches and treatises, attempts to guide the “new” that is trying to break away from the “old” towards certain concepts and to help the “new” to establish itself in a strategic perspective.” Three of the concepts that Oskar Negt helped to coin and that were of outstanding importance for the formation of the protest movement’s theories and beyond are listed here: the public sphere, experience and self-regulation.
Public Sphere and Experience
He wrote the book Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung. Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit (Public Sphere and Experience: Towards an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere) in collaboration with Alexander Kluge. It analyses the bourgeois public sphere as a degenerate and disappropriated form of organised social experience and contrasts it with the idea of the proletariat public sphere in the sense of a collective social production process, the object of which is coherent human sensuality (Negt, Kluge). Looking back in 1995 Oskar Negt wrote, “The idea of defining a living anti-public sphere positively with its own process categories has been one of the most vital insights for me, especially since the reactions to the attack on Rudi Dutschke. I do not see it the same way Jürgen Habermas did back then in his classic work as a mere plebeian variant of the bourgeois public sphere.”
Negt’s understanding of the public sphere is nothing more than a political amplification of the expression of human interests and needs and provides the framework for setting up a bottom-up decision-making process. This was one of the main arenas for the protest culture of the late 60s, particularly as the lack of a developed bourgeois public sphere was blatantly obvious.
Educational nurseries - a new approach to schooling
The beginning of the 1970s saw the advent of the alternative educational option of the comprehensive school, in particular the “Glocksee-Schule”, of which one of the founding fathers was Oskar Negt. This is where the third concept from the list comes in – self-regulation. In the preface to Achtundsechzig Negt writes, “Changes in the field of education are possibly the most tangible finds that were dug up from all that weird underground work. Educational nurseries is what came about from the impulses generated by “68” generation parents. They invested a great deal of time and effort to endow the concept of anti-authoritarianism - very much en vogue at the time - with the idea of a working process with all the rules of time and space. Self-regulation was the keyword that clearly defined the demarcation lines to the “old” system – an “old” system which anybody working with children was perfectly aware of just how firmly rooted it was in the disastrous history of the 20th century.”
Self-regulation was the reaction to the bourgeois nuclear family that had disqualified and discredited itself under fascism, the reaction as well to the mindset of subservience and the ongoing constriction of the authoritarian straightjacket. In his book Kindheit und Schule in einer Welt der Umbrüche (Childhood and School in a World of Change) published in 1997, Oskar Negt writes, “As long as it was a matter of tearing down the authoritarian structures of the institutions, of smashing the armour-plating of character, of preventing the reification of the cultural industry and the way people think by adopting a different approach both to learning in general as well as to the democratic practice of education, then any act of systematic self-regulation could be understood as a political act.”
Oskar Negt still continues to reflect on the virulent developments of the late 60s. Over and over again he has debated, analysed and drawn attention to the effects of 1968 on politics, culture and education. Without any sentimental, condescending or opportunistic gestures, he was one of the few intellectuals to assume a critical distance to the upheavals and awakenings of that time - he took them seriously and further reflected on them.
Negt, Oskar: Achtundsechzig. Poltische Intellektuelle und die Macht (Sixty-eight – Political Intellectuals and Power), Göttingen 1995, ISBN 3-88243-299-3.
Negt, Oskar: Kindheit und Schule in einer Welt der Umbrüche (Childhood and School in a World of Change), Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-88243-419-8.
Arbeit und Utopie. Oskar Negt zum 70. Geburtstag, (Work and Utopia. Oskar Negt on his 70th Birthday), published by Tatjana Freytag and Marcus Hawel, Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-934157-37-8.
Is a sociologist and research associate at the Institut für Erziehungswissenschaften der Stiftung Universität Hildesheim (Institute of Educational Science at the University of Hidesheim).
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe Institute, online editorial team