Richard Dietrich

This interview is part of the series Questioning the Notion of Neutrality.
Click here to read more about the project and to find more interviews.

Richard Dietrich has been organizing with the anti-classist student self-organization FiKuS in Münster, Germany for many years.

Interview – video

in English

Keywords / Overview

classist German school system

history of anti-classism and anti-classist student organisation at Münster University

Anti-classism and “extreme left” label
democracy and social inequality

name "FiKuS"
social, financial, cultural capital

need for a working class lobby


neutrality as access

powerful fear of losing privilege

reforms for less classist university access
German school education based on Nazi structure

bureaucracy – the enemy of the working class

personal vs. collective responsibility

teachers with working-class background
danger of reactionary tokens

social mirror

universities as a battlefield and site for organizing

Interview – transcript

in English

[My name is] Richard Dietrich. I grew up in Germany, my family immigrated from the Soviet Union. I grew up with just a mother, without a father, from what we would call poverty class background in Germany. It was quite tough.

German school system

We have a really selective education system in Germany, maybe the only country in Europe to have a system which is selective like this: after the fourth class, people get selected [into actually] not even three different systems [even though] we say “drei-gliedriges Schulsystem” 1, which is not the truth: it's not three different kinds of schools, because I was at the “Sonderschule,” which is a kind school for people with disabilities/learning difficulties [editor's note: replaced the word ret* which was used originally in the interview]. There is a high form of segregation, and I would like to call the problem by its name: For “us” – for my organization [FiKuS] and me – the German school system is, from the root, classist.

Short history of the word “classist”

The word “classism” comes from the civil rights movement from the US from [as far back as] the 60s. The Yanks used the word “class”: gender, race, class. And in Germany, it starts in the '68 movement. [Historically,] the dominant culture inside the left[ist] movement was the academic German culture. So this is the main problem since the '68 movement, why this movement for civil rights stopped at the point [where] people would [have to] attack their own privileges. But it's necessary, [just like] in the civil rights movements in the U.S.: a lot of white people participated in Black movements side by side with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X and other names. They said “Yeah, I'm privileged, and I have to give [up] these privileges. We cannot change or stop discrimination if I take advantage because I'm a man in a male-dominated sexist society, a white person in a white-dominated society, [etc].” And the left[ist] movement – to finish this topic – should say: “Yes, we get benefits, we have the privilege to be from academic German background.” This inequality is reproduced in the education system, but [also] in the whole society, and this is the thing we, as the FiKuS, are fighting for. I think on our [web]page it says “The Department of Social Justice” - I like this word, but the German translation is more about: We are representing students with a working class or poverty class, not academic, background. And we are a self-organization: we're the first – and were for a long time (like 15 years) the only organization that represents working- and poverty-class students. At the beginning of the formation [process] of this self-organization of working-class students in Münster in 2003, people were confronted with classism itself. [Opponents] said, “Why do you need self-organization? You are at the university! [So] you're not confronted with classism anymore!” It's a bit as if you would say: “In Germany, there is no sexism – look, there a woman is the president.” So it was kind of this narrow-minded argument. It came to a point [where] it was really depressing [but they] had good arguments and wrote the right articles. They published the magazine |dishwasher,” a working-class student magazine. Last year, our fight got ripe fruits: the self-organized movement success that there was [first] a new self-organization in Marburg 2, then now in Cologne 3, and there is KikK - “Klassismus ist keine Kunstepoche”4 – in Berlin [as well]. So you see, there is a movement. We are inside the discussion, and I think there was no [such] discussion at all in the whole leftist scene in Europe. [But] now so many things popped up in Germany, a bit in France… So I'm really happy. And I see this kind of interview, this platform, [as] the next example that something's really moving, and we are continuing the fight for fulfilling the civil rights.

How fikus was created

The 2003 efforts of founding a self-organized social department failed with the name. They wanted to call it a class-fight organization or working-class organization or even working-class children. It failed. They [the authorities] said no – it was too “left-extreme.” But this is maybe what has changed now, after years. It's not [seen as a] super “extreme-left” topic [anymore]. It's “neutral” – if we talk about neutrality of universities, now – a really legitimate demand on our society if we [look at] what a democracy is and how we can defend democracy. Everybody's talking about, as you say, AfD 5, or we saw things happening in the U.S., or Brazil, or worldwide with a new right-wing movement. I think this is just part of the problem, because democracy – real democracy – just can't exist if you don't have social equality and equality of chances, and this is not the case. So it's not a question about Marxism or revolution, it's just a question about democracy and about the way people can participate.

The name fikus

In 2003, it was a “too left[ist]” topic to talk about classes and working-class children. They had to find another name. And financially and culturally underprivileged students is connected to what the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote in his books. He says in the ’70s, about France: what divides us in our society is not just money, like you have more money than me or more houses – financial capital; [but that] there is social capital [as well], [for example,] that I know I can borrow money. The example of Donald Trump: he was able to get a lot of money because his father was a really rich man, influenced by real estate in New York. So of course, people give you more loans, people trust you because you were in a higher society of social capital. And there's cultural capital: if you know how to talk, if you know how to act, you more easily would get chosen for money, than if you don't know these secret codes, you know. From this theory of Pierre Bourdieu, they took financial and cultural capital and formed it into FiKuS. Our other sister social department and Marburg called themselves SoFiKuS [see footnote 3], which includes all forms of capital which Bourdieu used in his sociological research. But, as you see, there are different perspectives, which are [all] attacking and trying to criticize the same topic. And we're connected with the trade union youth organization and lawyers we tried to get a network to help people, and at the same time, of course, to connect people. Because our higher topic was to not just act locally in Münster. Because we can help people, we can organize, but we [also] try to attack directly the institutional structures of classism, and for this, we need a lot of people. And we need a lot of publicity, and with the publicity, people are getting more and more involved.

The need for a working-class lobby

We see that there are a lot of classist mechanisms. It's not just a thing people reproduce: our institutions, they're by themselves classist and exclude people and discriminate people. And this we want to point out, and we need to get influence. Privileged people, who have good lobbyism and have good lobbies, have a lot of influence. I [can] give you a good example about the lobby for working-class rights, or of course the fight against discrimination, where the social background was super important and failed. It was in the context of some treaties, hen the European Union defined its European (basic) rights/human rights. In these treaties of Amsterdam, in the beginning of the ‘90s, they put like things like, the European Union is against discrimination based on age, sex, disability, religion and social background. It was there in the blueprint, but then they kicked it out: They kicked out “social background,” age and sexual orientation, I think. And you know, with “age” there were the “Gray Panthers” – there were a lot of self-organized organizations for the representation of old people; [and] all LGBT, all gay communities were fighting against [it]. And then they took it [“age” and “sexual orientation”] back into the charta. But social discrimination is still not there. Because there were no self-organizations. The trade unions, left[ist] parties, the Social Democrats, nobody was really interested to change it. And this is why we should fight to get institutionally recognized. We have some rights to fight.

Do you think universities are neutral?

Neutrality… I think, firstly, most universities would define [themselves through] science. “We're neutral, because we're searching for science.” And this is interesting. [They claim] We try to help and in the whole complex around fake news and the right-wing movement, you hear a lot of times: “Ey, it's not scientific!” So scientific means neutral. And the places where science is produced like in a Fabrik [german for factory] are the universities. I think this is really interesting, because universities, from my view, produce of course political opinions as well. They're not neutral in the way they produce facts we can use. Because in a lot of ways there are no facts. For example, economy. Economy is really hard to define as a science because it's not like gravity or like you see the proportions of triangles; no, it's about defining what is the human being. In socialism, or real-existing socialist countries (my mom grew up in Kazakhstan from the Soviet Union), there the subjects were Marxism-Leninism. And they, as well, say, “This is a kind of science,” but it was philosophy as well. They [talk about] working-class and bourgeoisie and like this. Now we have switched to another paradigm and now we talk about everyone as homo oeconomicus, we like the most profit, there is a market that is regulating itself. This is how economy is taught in university now, but I don't think it's neutral. It is ideology. It's alike in most industrialized countries, they offer this accepted ideology, but it's not neutral. It's not neutral. I think the university wouldn't associate neutrality with access, like accessibility. They tell you that everybody has the same possibilities to study. I would say that's not true. In Germany, for example, you can see that just 25% of all people without academic background are able to study [based on their qualifications], and of these people – who are like 50% of our population, it's not a minority – the percentage of the people who stop their studies because they don't have the financial background and no support from home, is five times higher compared with people from academic backgrounds. I don't know this year's percentage, but for people with an academic background it's around 75% who study, and most of them successfully 6. So of course it's not the same access. Another argument of the university, when you confront them, is, “But to study is for free in Germany.” On the one hand, it's right, you don't have to pay like 5000€ each semester. But on the other hand, it's wrong, because you do have to pay some money 7. For access to the university, you have to have an insurance which is some money 8, and you have to move to cities where the rents are incredibly high because we are on a [free] market. So studying in Germany is actually really expensive, I think, and not everybody has the same options for this.

Classist justifications

In discussions about discrimination of women – for example, that women are just in 2% of the controlling positions in the biggest enterprises in Europe – one can say, “Okay, this is a fact, and we should change it,” because you couldn't say, “All women are lazy and they were just not good enough, not as good as the men,” because we all know it's not true. But with social background, there's maybe just one or two persons from a working-class background – and it's always just men – who are on top of the university or enterprise or in the parliament. The German parliament is more than 90% academics, and more than half of them are from law – and law is super elitist, super avant-garde in Germany. When you point at it and say “Do you think it's fair?: then people say “Yeah, but people from working class, they just were not good enough” or “Didn't move their ass enough, like the others.” You see, their classist arguments are still working. And we should get to a point where they [those arguments] are not working [anymore].

University access

But still, we tried a lot of times to have an exchange with our university, and they never would say that they're – in a social way – not neutral. But all scientific research has empirically proven that it's not neutral how you get good grades or what you have to do to get good degrees. For example, girls from an intersectional discrimination background, like girls with immigration and working-class background, they need to be double times better than some child from a [white German] academic family to get the same degree. So there's a big inequality in getting the degree to start at a university. So the university, by itself, how they open the access for everybody, it's not neutral, it's totally selective and classist.

What would be ideas forward?

Not just the degree should be a criteria to get access to what you study or not. There are a lot of different concepts. Even the Supreme Court said that [the selection based on grades] is against the Constitution because we have the freedom of choosing 9 what we want to work and study. But they say, as a provisorium – until the capacities of the universities have increased to match the demand – until then this numerus clausus, this selection by grades is active. But in fact, it's against our constitution. And it's still working, so why? It's a proof that our society is functioning with classism, with the fear of people with [class] privilege of losing this privilege. I can even give you analysis reports from right-wing economical think-tanks, and they say the German economy is losing billions of Euros every year, because not the best people have access to positions – people with the right social background have it. So you can't even explain the classist society and the reproduction of privilege just by capitalism, because it's even against the rules of capitalism. So the interest of the dominant culture of German academics is stronger than the parameters of class of the capitalist system. You see, so it's really powerful.

There could maybe even be a lottery for, like, 10, 20, 30% of all studies. A lot of people want to study medicine or law. Why not? It has happened in other cases. Why not, if so many people want to study, let them study? I think we can demand this. Why can't everybody study? Why not?

What else could change? That maybe the schools function differently. The German education system is from the time when we had an emperor when there was a German Reich [German for empire], and it survived through the Nazi time. After the Second World War, the allied forces looked how to de-nazificate and democratize Germany. And they came to the conclusion that Germany needs a new education system, obviously. So they made the Directive 54. And it [their proposed school system] was similar to the U.S. American system: everybody for free, until the 10th class. And there's just one school until the 10th class [as opposed to the German separated high schools]. [But] there were a lot of lobbyists who fought against that, [e.g.] there was the old language association and association of gymnasial teachers (Gymnasium is the elite stuff [one of the types of high school]). So I would say, the German education system is based on the Nazi education structure. And it's a shame that until now, it hasn't changed, that we're not even talking about changing it. We talk about having more support for the elites.

And this is another point, when you ask what should change if we have scholarships in Germany, most scholarships – less than 2% of all people studying get a scholarship – go to people from “good” families with a “good” background, who have enough money. And then they get pumped with this money, with up to €1000. So there should be a minimum of one institution that gives scholarships just based on social background. But [it's the] same as the university: you have good grades because you are the sunny side of life, you're a white German academic with a “good” background, and you get really more easy access to good grades and good, I will say like, recommendations – because your dad has a lot of friends at his golf club that can write that you made a voluntary service there even when you weren't there, and write that you're better than you are. You get it. I think there should be a minimum of one institution that will give scholarships to people based on social background. I think even in the U.S., they support people with “low” social background more than in Germany, and that's a real shame.

How do you think the age of neoliberalism has changed these things?

The university was incredibly bureaucratized, and I think the bureaucracy… for me, like alone, I would never do it. I have friends who helped me, who knew all these things. And I can see a lot of people like my mom – she doesn't speak that good German… and even for other people, Germans, there are so many technical words. It's not easy. It's not easy at all. And you don't have the information. I feel like bureaucracy is the enemy of the working class. It was created to select the working class out.

In a society that is aware about political structures and institutional discrimination, they would say, “Okay, it happened like this because it was hard for you,” but in a deregulated, neoliberal system, people see individual responsibility, private responsibility all the time. You, privately, are responsible for your success or your failure. And I think this makes the difference, because people are ashamed to organize themselves if they fail. Like most people who are big voices for organized anti-classist students, or anti-classism in our education system, they already are successful in their life, they have finished their studies, or they teach at universities. They say, |I still got discriminated.” But they have a voice, they are accepted by the system. But what about the people that couldn't finish? I think they get lost in their own… they blame themselves. But I would like people to see that if we fail in this society, in this education system, it's not just because we're too lazy or too stupid, no, it's because there are high obstacles, and the education or the political system is created such that at some point, we get selected [out].

What would having more working-class background teachers at university change?

You can say that there are, in general, two big streams, two big polarizations of people who came from a working-class background and have reached a high position or have made a career in the academic society and academic structures: there are people that start to get avant-gardist, and they are even harder to working-class students because they say “I did it, I suffered a lot, so you have to suffer as well, because I reached it.” I call these people the “Arnold Schwarzeneggers” because Arnold Schwarzenegger (even though he is now involved with this stuff with Trump and I like what he said) came from, I think, a working-class, proletarian family and a really small place in Austria. And when he became the governor of Florida he held a speech, and it was really interesting. He said: “Look at me, I started as a young proletarian boy in Austria. And now I'm… I was Mr Universe. I was a Hollywood actor. I got the Oscars. I got millions. And now, I'm the governor of Florida. And you can do it as well if you just if you want.”So these are these people who say everybody can do it. And if they're not Mr Universe, millionaires and the governor of California or president in some country, then they just didn't have the will to do it. And I think this is dangerous because these people can get used. You see Black, Muslim, migrant people inside the Front National [far-right political party] in France, who said “Yes, I was a migrant, as well. But I was working, I adapted to the culture in France, and these people who are coming [now], they're not, so deport them.” And these are people coming from the same background saying this. These people can be used as a weapon from the reactionary side.

On the other side, you have, or we have some teachers at the university who have this [working-/poverty-class] background, and they know how hard is it and they support other people. They're open to help. I see it like this: if there were more people with this social background [represented], if we would live in a society with more diversity, it would be much easier to change things this way. But at the moment, we're not in a really diverse society, because mostly, in a lot of positions where decisions are taken, we still have white, male, academic people.

Pierre Bourdieu was writing about the social mirror. [For example,] if you're a teacher, and you see people around, of course, you like to get reflected, or you reflect yourself in the person you see. [When] it's [somehow] familiar, you can identify with them. It's like a mirror for you. And people who have the same background. They [possibly] have the same hobbies, share the same values. Maybe they speak the same way you do. Pierre Bourdieu found out that people from working-class backgrounds sometimes speak louder in the university so that people listen to them, because they get ignored. So they get pressured – subconsciously – into an aggressive position. They say “Ah, you're so aggressive,” but who produces that situation, as well? You see, it's really subtle, hidden social phenomena. So of course, teachers that have the same background as them understand the problems of students more when people say, “I'm sorry, I'm really dizzy today. Because it's Ramadan and I follow it” or I don't know, “I have big problems at home, because we cannot pay the bills.” So many different things. I remember when I fell asleep in class and they said, “Sorry, then stay at home,” and I say, 'Sorry, I was working,” and they say, “Okay, but then maybe the university's not [for you?] – you have to be awake.” And on the other hand, I remember there were teachers where I could see really quickly that they have an affinity to the working class and social justice, and with them it was much easier to communicate that I was working a lot of time, I cannot finish this homework until this date. They were trying to give you more freedom and trust and this was really awesome. And [they gave the feeling that] “I even understand and am interested in what you're writing.” Then I saw that it's really important that you have these partnerships, these mirrors, social mirrors in the university. Of course, they could identify much more with you than somebody from an academic background, because they kno w how hard it was like when they were studying. So we need networks. And we need what I told before: we need more mixed and diverse [surroundings], more plurality in our education system.

The importance of universities for political struggle

I think that the universities are really important. And this is why, if you think another world is possible, you see in the '68 movements in France the workers and the students demonstrating together – and Paris was burning, they were fighting for a new society and Charles de Gaulle had to escape to Germany because the situation was really strong. I think this moment about the French history really motivates me. Because you see it's possible and the people know it's possible to change it. And if the people really organize and want something, then never mind the president or a king, they will dance and – if the people want it – even the head of the state disappears and something changes. So universities everywhere were the hotspots, were the mortar – in all the regions – of changing the society. They are important because there are a lot of young people exchanging ideas and they have the time to discuss. And this energy we need to reactivate. With the Bologna reforms, I think they really stopped it. Universities produce the teachers of tomorrow, and the teachers of tomorrow produce the students of tomorrow, through the way they teach and they select. Because every teacher has the decision which grades they give. “Should I give them, like, a grade which is not good, and they get stuck and get selected [out]?” So I think it's a really important thing that there should be a sense of more sensibility and conscience at universities about discrimination, especially when they are producing teachers. And with the universities, if you change the universities, you will change a lot in society. So this is a battlefield. I think the right-wing and the economy and the liberals, they're really concerned and they realized this is the battlefield they should win in order to have this reactionary society. And we should reclaim this battlefield and realize it's a battlefield. It's not just a place where we're like clients and get knowledge and then go out. It's much more and it's super important to get the universities. At least the universities should be a place with less discrimination and much more democracy.

Further reading

  1. German for “three-tier school system,” used for describing the system of three different types of high-schools that children are sorted into after elementary school: Gymnasium, where people graduate after grade 12 with the qualification to go to a university; Realschule, where people graduate after grade 10 with a qualification needed for many vocational trainings; and Hauptschule, where people graduate after grade 9 with the Hauptschulabschluss (German for “Hauptschule graduation”). There are some possibilities for (young) adults to get qualifications for university through specialized schools or through qualifications they get through vocational trainings, but it's not the norm. (Getting access to university through a different means than going to the Gymnasium is called Zweiter Bildungsweg, meaning, “second(ary) education path”). 

  2. Facebook-Link to SoFiKuS Marburg - Referat für Sozial, Finanziell, Kulturell benachteiligte Studierende (“socially, financially, culturally disadvantaged students”) 

  3. Website of FakE - Autonomes Referat für antiklassistisches Empowerment an der Universität zu Köln (independent self-organisation 'for anti-classist empowerment' at the university in Cologne) 

  4. Link to the group's website. Note about the name: translated to English, it means “classism is no time in art”. For some context: In German, people often mistake the word “Klassismus” (classism) for “Klassizismus” (neoclassicism) which shows that many people are more likely to have heard of an art movement in the 18th century than classism. 

  5. 'Alternative für Deutschland', a far-right political party that has gained a lot of votes in Germany over the last few elections 

  6. Graphic from FakE comparing the percentages of children from an academic and non-academic background at different levels in the higher education system 

  7. The Studiengebühren (study fees) used to vary between federal states and amount to around €500 per semester. By 2014 they were abolished in all federal states, mostly as a result of Social Democrats and Greens entering governments previously run by just Conservatives. But fees still exist and vary between states – e.g., in some states students need to pay fees if they study for longer than the programmes are planned for. Also, students still need to pay Immatrikulationsgebühren (administrative fees) each semester, and in many universities, buying a public-transport-pass is obligatory, as well. The administrative and public-transport fees usually amount to €200–300 per semester; at universities without a public transport deal, the administrative fees would be below €100 per semester. Link to an overview (in German). 

  8. Insurance depends on your family situation. If one of your parents is part of the public health insurance, children who study are free until the age of 25, after that they need to pay around €95/month. Students whose parents are privately insured (usually either high-income or self-employed parents) have to get private insurance as well, where costs vary greatly. 

  9. Article 12 of the German constitution ('Grundgesetz') (Link) includes the freedom to choose one's job, place of work and place of study.