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How did the long march through the institutions, as theorized by Dutschke and Gramsci, take place concretely?

A definition of this theory by Wikipedia:

The long march through the institutions (German: der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen) is a slogan coined by socialist student activist Rudi Dutschke around 1967 to describe his strategy for establishing the conditions for revolution: subverting capitalist domination of society by entering institutions such as the professions.

According to this definition, and my knowledge about this theory informed by diverse sources, I interpret this theory as prescriptive, more than descriptive (but maybe I'm incorrect, see Avery's answer below).

For instance, do we have some people, be there journalists, successful entrepreneurs/industrialists, artists, or intellectuals, who openly said they read Dutschke and Gramsci, and had the plan to follow their theory in order to promote left-wing ideas, by "marching through the institutions", during the 1960s until recently? Do we have left-wing political parties which openly exposed that they were following this theory, or something similar?

I can imagine some university professors were influenced and motivated by this theory, and talked openly about that. But I find it more difficult to imagine for journalists and artists, because I never heard about such thing, although I now that a significant amount of artists and media outlets in the 1960s and 1970s, were indeed strongly engaged in left-wing ideas promotion (and this is still the case today).

On the other hand, I also feel it is plausible that things unfolded that way. Indeed, we can see now a backlash in the West, where the right-wing, here quite openly, tries to "march back through the institutions". It is the case of the French right-wing billionnaire Vincent Bolloré who bought many big national media outlets in the recent years, which have subsenquently and suddenly turned very conservative in their tone. Or the Florida governor Ron de Santis, who frontally fought Disney in the realm of its left-wing values supporting, and tried to intervene in the schools curriculum.

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  • Could you summarise the theory you are talking about, and maybe link to something for more detail? Thanks. Jul 11, 2023 at 13:57
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    @PaulJohnson Edited, thanks!
    – Starckman
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:01
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    @MarkMorganLloyd I think this strategy was meant to stand in contrast with a former communist strategy which consisted not in entering the institutions and making a revolution from the inside, but directly overthrow them, as theorized in the Communist manifesto of Karl Marx
    – Starckman
    Jul 12, 2023 at 6:28
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    There is no left-wing ideas promotion in mainstream media today, not in what Dutschke and co. would have understood by left-wing, which certainly has nothing to do with Disney which did not start to show LGBT characters until they were sure a majority in their major markets were OK with it. Disney isn't left-wing.
    – gerrit
    Jul 12, 2023 at 11:29
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    @gerrit I think you read the post with a strong bias. It is written "during the 1960s until recently", so we are not talking about today. And the passage about Disney is talking about the right-wing, not the left-wing.
    – Starckman
    Jul 12, 2023 at 11:40

2 Answers 2

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I'l restrict my answer to Germany, where I can name some names, but the same could probably be said about France and Italy, maybe even the United Kingdom.

During the 1990s I encountered a lot of people in administrative positions with the state that referred to "marching through the institutions" when talking about their careers. But was that the core of their motivation? The 1970s saw a massive increase in personnel in public institutions, be it teachers, social services, or plain bureaucracy. Those who were students in the late 1960s were in a prime position to take these jobs, to hold on to them and rise through the ranks thoughout their working life.

Certainly they did take their political views with them. Certainly that changed the nature of the institutions they were working for. Old timers that had started their careers during the Nazi regime went into retirement. From my viewpoint this was more an expectable generation change than a purposefull "subversion" of capitalist institutions, whatever illusions the actors were under.

And yes, some of those did rise to the top and became prominent. As an example, take the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Berlin Free University. There were a number of well-known leftist professors that came out of the student movement. A few names: Herta Däubler-Gmelin, Johannes Agnoli, Gesine Schwan, Wolf-Dieter Narr. (This does not say the Institute was dominated by their positions. There always were equally prominent right-wing professors like Arnulf Baring or conservatives like Roman Herzog.)

You will find comparable careers throughout leading positions everywhere in Germany. For me and my friends it was always a tongue-in-cheek game to guess which "K-Gruppe" (communist faction) they were a member of in their youth just from their personality: Former Bolsheviks were loyal followers of every party line offered to them, Maoists you could tell by the complete absence of moral principles, and Trotzkists could argue ideology until hell froze over...


Of course Rudi Dutschke himself, and actually the majority of activists of his generation took a different road. They organized their own movements outside of the established institutions. Green movement, Anti-nuclear movement, house squatters, feminist movement all represent a counter-reaction within the German left during the 1970s. They decided to leave the ideological trenches and hard-set views of the K-groups behind them and move on to more constructive endeavors. Some moved to the countryside, others founded cultural institutions or took the capitalist gains of their fathers and devoted them to a political trust. A small collective of students offering a moving service became one of Germanies largest moving companies. Publishing houses, film distribution and periodicals are a given.

And others founded a political party. Rudi Dutschke was among the founding members of the German Green party. His premature death, a late consequence of the 1968 attempt on his life, prevented him from taking a leading role, but others from his generation were successfull: Joschka Fischer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Claudia Roth, Antje Vollmer and a long number of other household names in German politics. Others left the party again, either reaffirming their leftist roots (Jutta von Dithfurth, Rudolf Bahro), joining the social democrat party (Otto Schily) or moving to more conservative politics (Herbert Gruhl).

A curious case is that of Winfried Kretschmann, who was blocked from entering public sevice as a teacher because of his membership in a KBW student group, but is now the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg.


And here is a final tidbit: Rudi Dutschke wrote articles for a 1970s periodical called Der lange Marsch. But that paper distanced itself from what they call "social democrat entryism" in favor of a "counter public sphere" (Gegenöffentlichkeit):

"Der 'lange Marsch' wird [...] als sozialdemokratischer Entrismus interpretiert: Jahrzehntelange Unterwanderung und allmähliche Umfunktionierung bürgerlicher Institutionen. Nichts lag uns ferner. [...] 1968 erschien ein vom INFI des SDS herausgegebenes Buch: 'Der lange Marsch'. Sein Vorwort war ein Beitrag zur Strategiediskussion der revolutionären Linken.

Darin sollte die Einheit und der Zusammenhang des Befreiungskampfes der Guerilla in der Dritten Welt mit dem sozialistischen Kampf in den Metropolen aufgezeigt werden.

'Der lange Marsch der Guerilla durch die Kontinente' war die eine Seite der revolutionären Strategie, die andere war der 'lange Marsch durch die Institutionen' in den Metropolen. Der lange Marsch wurde hier verstanden als ein permanenter Konflikt mit den bürgerlichen Institutionen, eine andauernde Provokation bürgerlicher Öffentlichkeit, die Schaffung eines Gegenmilieus, das Selbstveränderung ermöglichte und Veränderung der Verhältnisse kongret in Angriff nahm."

(translated by DeepL)

"The 'long march' is [...] interpreted as social democratic entryism: Decades of infiltration and gradual re-functioning of bourgeois institutions. Nothing was further from our minds. [...] In 1968, a book published by the INFI of the SDS appeared: 'The Long March'. Its preface was a contribution to the strategy discussion of the revolutionary left.

It was intended to show the unity and connection between the liberation struggle of the guerrillas in the Third World and the socialist struggle in the metropolises.

'The long march of the guerrillas through the continents' was one side of the revolutionary strategy, the other was the 'long march through the institutions' in the metropolises. The long march was understood here as a permanent conflict with bourgeois institutions, a continuous provocation of bourgeois public opinion, the creation of a counter-milieu that enabled self-change and concretised change in conditions."

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  • Very documented answer. Do you know if these people and political groups had any relation with artists? I wonder how the artists were also involved in this long march, as they were, because many artists in the 1960s and 1970s, until now, were involved in left-wing ideas promotion. Concretely, could we imagine that they formed an intelligentsia? These politicians, intellectuals and artists were friends, and worked together, while sharing the same views, and the same goals
    – Starckman
    Jul 12, 2023 at 4:40
  • For instance I know that Sartre was both an artist (a writer), an intellectual (a philosopher), and was involved in political movements. The writer Philippe Sollers was engaged in the communist party, and participated in running a big publishing house. He was closed to other left-wing intellectuals such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Derrida etc. But I have no examples in mind for people in the influential pop/rock/psychedelic/... music industry of the 1960s and 1970s (although could have some examples from the 1990s and 2000s)
    – Starckman
    Jul 12, 2023 at 5:30
  • Good answer. Was the Radikalenerlass in any way a response to the Lange Marsch?
    – gerrit
    Jul 12, 2023 at 11:38
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    I am reluctant to presume a sort of "group-identity". Yes, Chancellor Willy Brandt garnered a broad support from artists (Günter Grass being the most prominent) and yes, a lot of them formulated an obligation for themselves to be a part of the transformation of society. But same as the constant bickering between the various K-groups, these artists were all too different to have any coherence. Imagine catholic and emphatic writer Heinrich Böll and hedonist and egocentric filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder together – they could sign the same petition, but would never sit on the same stage.
    – ccprog
    Jul 12, 2023 at 13:02
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    Nonetheless, ten years later the founding of the green party had the support of a wide range of artists, and for them you could say they shared a common view of "counter-culture". Pars pro toto, the above-mentioned Claudia Roth was the former manager of rock group "Ton Steine Scherben", the most revered band of the house squatter's movement. Joseph Beuys, one of the most prominent artists and teachers at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy, was an outspoken supporter of the Greens and brought wide parts of his scene with hime (including not only visual artists, but also musicians).
    – ccprog
    Jul 12, 2023 at 13:10
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Your question seems to ask whether some members of "institutions" considered Gramsci and Dutschke to have proposed a specific, prescriptive program, which they later felt that they had followed. However, those who were "marching through the institutions" were not necessarily reading Gramsci and Dutschke, nor did those writers intend to introduce a new and innovative approach to politics. Rather, they were simply trying to give a name to a type of mass political action which had already begun at the time. As one observer summarizes:

[Radical] movements took up, sometimes in defeat and sometimes by default, Dutschke’s metaphorical call to march through the institutions: to question cultural hegemony, to repeal the repressive and authoritarian practices of dominant institutions, and to render political those domains that were conventionally seen to be beyond politics. The point, said the Situationists, was ‘to live instead of devising a lingering death’. And it is to the new political practices, to the new organizations created (as much as old institutions they attempted to reform), and to the enlarged role of civil society that the sixties legacy can be made to speak. (Michael Watts, 2001; emphasis added)

This article gives non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as an example of counter-institutions set up to accomplish a political goal, but I don't think that will help you understand what Gramsci and Dutschke were talking about. The article is about the effects of 1968, and the phrase "long march to the institutions" should be seen in light of 1968. The fight between the Old Left and New Left transformed young people's understanding of what sorts of activities were political, and how old institutions could become less authoritarian and answer better to the political and social needs of members. This is too vague to be satisfying, so I am going to choose a specific example that shows that this was not just about "far-left radicals" but was part of a worldwide social change.

In 2018, I attended a conference on 1968, and for some reason I am reminded of one specific talk that I heard there, about youth movements in the Danish-German border region of Schleswig-Holstein. There was a German community in southern Denmark and up until 1968 it was the most conservative institution imaginable, with members publishing newsletters in German, bringing families to summer camp where everyone sang old German songs, etc. etc. The message was that they were living under foreign occupation in Denmark. I can't remember if they were wearing lederhosen at their meetings, but basically they had created a retrograde, irredentist ethno-cultural enclave within Denmark. To the older members this was an essential part of their identity. Younger members were increasingly frustrated by the pointless and small-minded self-segregation, and precisely in 1968 they rose up against their elders and demanded the right to take over the ethnic organizations and reform them to adapt to Danish society. They successfully did so and the German minority in Denmark is now well-integrated, speaks Danish, and participates in local politics. A parallel revolution happened in the Danish community south of the border.

I hope this example helps shed light on what is meant by "marching through the institutions". The idea is that in the 1960s, societies had become much more complex than the early 20th century where revolutionary ideas could quickly spark transformative movements. New ideas, whether anti-capitalist or any sort of shift in consciousness, were now getting crushed by the overwhelming power of institutional authority. Gramsci and Dutschke approved of the young political actors who found the courage to directly participate in reconstructing and reforming such institutional authority. Just as you had young people rising up against ethnic conservatives in the example I gave, in other cases young women employed in an organization might rise up to protest for equal pay and better treatment, or university students might reject the parental attitude of administrators and demand the right to self-expression. All of this was part of a refusal to accept the hegemony of institutional authority.

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  • "Your question seems to ask whether some members of "institutions" considered Gramsci and Dutschke to have proposed a specific, prescriptive program, which they later felt that they had followed." not necessarily later and subconsciously. They could have followed it consciously
    – Starckman
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:49
  • I feel your point is that Gramsci and Dutschke were simply, in their theory, encouraging a movement (the affirmation of progressive ideas over many society strata) that they saw as already unfolding, or about to unfold. (thx for your beautiful answer)
    – Starckman
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:54
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    Yes, that's what I was trying to say, thank you!
    – Avery
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:54
  • Edited my post with a reference to your answer
    – Starckman
    Jul 11, 2023 at 14:58

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