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Celebrating Georg Fülberth on his eightieth birthday

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CC BY-SA 3.0, Sven Teschke

On 23 September 1939, Sigmund Freud died in London. Two days later, 80 years from today, Georg "Schorsch" Fülberth, prof. emeritus of political science, was born in Darmstadt. Coincidence? Well, yes, of course. Totally. In fact, to a certain extent Fülberth represents a kind of antithesis to Freud. And he is at least twice as funny.

When I went to the University of Marburg to study in the winter semester of 1999–2000, it was because Fülberth taught there. I was not one of a kind. There were plenty of us. During orientation week I bumped into two of my future co-authors, David Salomon and Stefan Schmalz.

"Why are you here?"

"Fülberth, Kühnl, Deppe. And you?"

"Fülberth, Kühnl, Deppe."

All three of them were Marxists. All three of us would become Marxists. At the time, the University of Marburg was Germany’s York University or SOAS.

Fülberth we knew mainly because of his lucid columns and articles in the monthly journal konkret, which one commentator once eloquently defined as "a bourgeois lefty journal in which, over time, the lefty part has become smaller and smaller and the bourgeois part bigger and bigger." Others said konkret was the journal where Der Spiegel journalists writing under pseudonyms used to rid themselves of pent-up anger and political dissatisfaction.

In any case, Fülberth was not only a strange creature in konkret, he was also a strange creature in academia. He was completely devoid of any kind of professorial pretentiousness and academic airs and graces. He also just didn't give a rat's ass about being cited by other scholars or being invited to write for the bourgeois media. It was the truth and the argument he cared about—quit your bullshit!

The first university course I ever attended was Georg Fülberth's "Political Economy of State Budgets from Adam Smith to Friedrich August Hayek". It started on Monday at 9:00. Fülberth revealed that he traditionally chose this time and day for one of his courses in order to ensure that people really wanted to attend it. The first thing Fülberth did when starting the semester was to turn on the light, remarking that "this is a service university now and this is my first service to you." The first time a student addressed him as "Professor Fülberth", he looked around bewildered (and man, can he look bewildered!), pulled out his wallet, passed around his German  ID card, asked whether anyone saw the title "professor" or "doctor" next to his name, and explained that from now on any kind of undemocratic gestures of subordination were forbidden. From now on he was "Herr Fülberth", and later just "Schorsch".

But to come back to the reincarnation question: is Fülberth really not the humorous reincarnation of Sigmund Freud? Well, for me he was Freud's dialectical sublation. When I came to Marburg, I still had the Frankfurt School in my backpack—and a lot of Freud. It took me a long time to recognize the difference. For instance, in Frank Deppe's seminar's I gave presentations on Adorno (etc.) thrice. The first two times I was outraged that Deppe, whom I respected tremendously, suddenly said: "Yes, that's good etc., but weren't Horkheimer and Adorno the left wing of the organic intellectuals of the bourgeoisie?" How dare he! Fülberth, on the other hand, would just nod, smile, and say: "Ah, you're reading Adorno! Uh-uh!", surely thinking to himself: "He'll grow up eventually! (And if not, it doesn't matter because the working class will liberate itself and us! Not these types.)"

With regards to the healing process from culturalist (ultra-)leftism and esoteric theoretical abstractionism, Fülberth was our man. He took the "historical" in "historical materialism" just as seriously as the "materialism." Like very few—in the broadest sense—Marxist and Marxian theorists in Germany at the time, he focused on political economy and real-concrete socialist labour movement history. His numerous books include both histories of the German labour movement and the SPD, comparative analyses of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the German Communist Party (DKP), comparative historiographies of the two German states and of Germany after reunification, as well as several monographs on the political economy of capitalism and socialism. His love of history went so far that we not only cooperated with him on the new historical-critical Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe volume including the letters to and from Marx and Engels stretching from November 1888 to September 1889 (occasionally silly work which included visits to the New York Public Library in order to check whether the pen colour was really the one indicated by the first transcriber); we also conducted local history projects on various districts of the city of Marburg and things like that. In fact, Fülberth knows Marburg so well that his six-hour tours of the city are legendary.

While Fülberth has been tremendously serious and determined with regards to scholarly rigor, his sense of humour, oftentimes cynical, has always captured not only his friends but also the enemies of his open involvement with the DKP, for which he was a local councilmember for years. Despite his uncompromising stance—some would say precisely because of it—Fülberth has been endearing. The once social-democratic and increasingly social-liberal Frankfurter Rundschau at one point wrote that only three things were worth visiting in Marburg: The Deutsche Orden Elisabethkirche, the Castle, and Georg Fülberth.

Some of the best and timeless Fülberth stories are therefore of his public appearances. He was a leader of subversive communication guerrilla tactics long before the term was invented. Among my favourite memories are his Friedrich Engels shirt, which is the worst black-and-white, grainy silkscreen print imaginable with Engels sitting somewhere between the stomach and intestines; Fülberth participating in the demonstration against the closing of the local labour court, pushing his legendary bicycle with a small sign attached that reads: "Für eine heimatverbundene Klassenjustiz" (For a homeland-loving class justice system); and Fülberth as a great Roman centurion when we all dressed up as Romans sending a message at Marburg's employment agency after the late FDP party chairman Guido Westerwelle had called German welfare benefits "late-Roman decadence”.

In any case, Fülberth is just a great guy. As he once pointed out: the only reason why he could even become a professor was that, during the 1950s in South Hessia, "you could not cross the street without two Social Democrats coming from the left and from the right side, taking you by the hand and saying: 'You, kid, are gonna go to university!'" Needless to say, his sense of justice is tied to this particular socio-economic background. With the class segregation we have today, the upper class reproduces the upper class and academia (re-)presents upper class opinions. Professionalized academia undercuts the rigor, sincerity, Haltung, and disinterest in fame that intellectuals like Fülberth cultivated—especially during the high-period of his publishing activity, which clearly falls into the time period after 1989, a crucial year for him, of course.

Fülberth's oeuvre is still far too unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, and still in need of translation. The history and political-theoretical legacy of the Marburg School to which Georg Fülberth belongs, is yet to be excavated. Fortunately, next month Lothar Peter's Marx on Campus: A Short History of the Marburg School will be published by Brill in the Historical Materialism Book Series, and later as a paperback through Haymarket Books. I was lucky enough to be able to write the introduction to the book which Loren Balhorn translated into English. I hope that this volume will provoke translations of key texts by Georg Fülberth and other protagonists of the Marburg School.

As a public intellectual, Fülberth has played a crucial role in German intellectual life. Very few people now are capable of the poignant and piercing style of writing which never ceases to point to contradictions within the Left, and even fewer know how to craft a text the way he does. This includes immortal puns, witticisms, puns, and nicknames. For instance: to me, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Germany's most influential historian, who started out as an eclectic Marxian Weberian and shifted to the right from there, is now forever the "Wechsel-Wehler", the "Swing Voter" (the name “Wehler” is pronounced exactly like the German term for voter). Or do you remember when Georg Fülberth called the new German Left Party, Die Linke, as the “Initiative Alte Soziale Marktwirtschaft" (Initiative Old Social Market Economy), which was a polemical pun referencing the neoliberal think tank Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (Initiative New Social Market Economy)?

We must hope that Georg Fülberth will be around much longer. Even if we don't agree with him all of the time, we need voices like his. And we need characters like him.

Ingar Solty is an expert on peace and security policy at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis.