50 years Kursbuch
The Critique Machine

Capa da revista “Kursbuch”
Cover of the journal “Kursbuch” | © Murmann Publishers

Kursbuch is one of the most important intellectual journals in Germany. Its purview includes both politics and society, and for fifty years it has made a significant contribution as a counter-public.

To prepare the revolution, you need not train at the shooting range. Sometimes it suffices when you simply talk or, even better, write a great deal and see to it that these texts get read. So, at any rate, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, poet, prose writer, editor and multi-talent, saw the matter. In 1965 he founded the journal Kursbuch. The name alludes to directories for bus and train schedules in a given area and was chosen deliberately. “Railway and bus guides prescribe no direction; they give connections. And they are valid as long as the connections are”, wrote Enzensberger. But such guides also promise a certain order. They show what could be possible.   

Kursbuch began publishing in 1965 on a quarterly basis with Suhrkamp and dedicated each issue to one topic: for example, students and power, revolution in Latin America, or psychiatry. The focal subject was developed in literary and essayistic texts, with reports, interviews, transcripts and analyses. Kursbuch soon became one of the most important intellectual journals in Germany. In the 1970s each issue sold in the tens of thousands. Kursbuch was so successful because it founded a real counter-public. In its pages you could find what other publications kept silent about. Politically, Kursbuch was on the left, but not dogmatic. It joined the private life-world with high politics and thus repeatedly influenced debates: from the dictatorship of the Iranian Shah and his Western supporters and the liberation movements of the Third World to the anti-authoritarian upbringing of children.    

Mosaic of German protest culture

In the early 1960s Enzensberger had already participated in a project for a European journal, a Revue Internationale, which was to be published in three languages and in three countries – France, Italy and Germany. The project was never realized. The global citizen Enzensberger, who could never stay in Germany for long and constantly travelled around the world, then founded Kursbuch so as to keep the spirit of the Revue Internationale alive. And Kursbuch did in fact explain the world to the Germans, giving a voice to Latin American poets, Iranian democrats and Vietnamese revolutionaries. Well-known German writers wrote for Kursbuch – for instance, Martin Walser, Heiner Müller and Max Frisch. Almost even more exciting is its list of international authors: Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky.   

Setting the hitherto published volumes of Kursbuch next to each other gives you a mosaic of fifty years of German protest culture: the euphoria and self-confidence of the 1960s, the doubts of the late 1970s, the fear of the 1980s, the retreat into the private sphere of the 1990s. At the turn of the millennium Kursbuch become temporarily less intellectual; it tried shorter articles and a journalistic approach. After several changes of publisher, in 2012 Kursbuch found a new home at the Hamburg publishing house Murmann. The new editors are the Munich sociology professor Armin Nassehi and the journalist Peter Felixberger. On its 50th anniversary in 2015, Kursbuch celebrated itself and the good old days unnostalgically. It was not about looking back. It was about looking ahead. Emblazoned on the cover of the anniversary issue was the question: “Kursbuch. What for?” The question has a long tradition: each issue of Kursbuch has again and again had to account for what criticism can still achieve today. Are long lectures and complicated texts still the right forms in an age of blogs and live tickers? Is the concept of the journal hopelessly outdated? Or is exactly the opposite the case? 

Calmness instead of indifference

Today we are quickly indignant and form opinions in milliseconds. Against this impatience helps the calmness that a twenty-page text quite automatically conveys, and the detached view and a bit of composure, which should certainly not be confused with indifference. Such a posture is communicated by, for example, the Kursbuch from the autumn of 2015 on the theme of “Fleeing”, which, with nearly 10,000 copies sold, was the most successful issue of the past year. It showed that large migrations are historically normal and do not indicate a state of emergency.  

Kursbuch seeks to put completely different perspectives on society between two book covers, to give voice to very different views in science, the economy, politics and the arts. In this sense it still provides a counter-public, a different and transverse view on society. Sometimes this includes questioning leftist self-certainties. Are, for example, asymmetries between power and knowledge – between doctor and patient, parents and children – invariably something bad? Is the classical critique of capitalism perhaps even a soft-pedaling of the difficulties because it pretends that the economy and society as a whole could be controlled centrally if only we really wanted to? Kursbuch may look a little old-fashioned; it has very deliberately kept its cover layout from 1965. It is sometimes demanding, arduous and irritating. And perhaps more relevant than ever.

The German Quaterly Kursbuch and the Goethe-Institut see themselves as venues for critical reflection and discourse. Together they invite authors of the Kursbuch and intellectuals abroad to a global series of debates under the heading "Kritikmaschine". The speakers will talk about current issues at stake in Germany and abroad. Among others the series will feature the following German speakers: sociologist Armin Nassehi talks about critical thinking, journalist Meredith Haaf reflects upon new feminism, architect Friedrich von Borries discusses political design and historian Sabine Donauer explores labour in digital society.