Socialism’s Past and Future

Positive Freedom

Axel Honneth’s new book seeks to give renewed meaning and power to the socialist ideal.


First, take a deep breath. Close your eyes to the appalling spectacle of American democracy collapsing all around us. Stop your ears to the cacophony of voices cheering on or lamenting its imminent demise. Instead, try to achieve enough inner calm to recall something that was once a source of solace: the idea of an alternative political and economic system—indeed, a whole new way of life—known as socialism. It may not be easy, because the din outside is deafening and the memory of socialism has faded for many. But only if you can summon the concentration and strength will you be in the proper frame of mind to consider Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism.

Honneth is best known as the leading representative of the Frankfurt School’s “third generation.” He is an advocate of many of the lessons and ideas of its first two generations, but over the years, he has also broken with his forebears in a variety of ways. Moving beyond Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative reasoning, Honneth has stressed the important role that our struggle for recognition—as manifested in the pursuit of love, esteem, and respect—can and should play in egalitarian politics. He has also tried to renew the Frankfurt School’s mode of social criticism and analysis by mining a wide variety of sources—Michel Foucault, the American pragmatists George Herbert Mead and John Dewey, the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott—that he believes helps us better understand the pathologies of modern life, and he isn’t afraid to get into debates with fellow social theorists, including with Nancy Fraser over whether recognition or redistribution should be a key to radical politics.

Hegel hovers over much of Honneth’s work, and never more explicitly than in his last major effort, Freedom’s Right. But Honneth’s writings are also haunted by the question of what the radical tradition might mean in today’s world. Can one rescue the socialist ideal from its history of disappointments and failures? Can democracy become more than an empty ideal in our age? Must a radical politics mean an end to all aspects of bourgeois society? Or is there a way to synthesize what’s best in the socialist and liberal traditions and perhaps remake our economic system along the lines of what some now call “market socialism”?

These are not new questions. Much of the left’s history in the 20th century has been marked by efforts—some more creative than others—to give renewed meaning and purpose to the socialist tradition. But as Honneth acknowledges in The Idea of Socialism, part of the motive behind his book is personal: He seeks to rebut recent criticisms that he has abandoned the utopian impulse in critical theory and settled for modest reforms of the present order. Although he avoids imperatives for concrete action and isn’t writing a “socialist manifesto” for our time, he wants to combat the resignation of those on the left who, he believes, have abandoned all hope for radical change. To that end, he defends a particular idea of socialism—one that doesn’t need to conform to the contours of the Marxist political tradition. For Honneth, this vision of socialism can be defended less from the vantage point of utopian thought experiments and more from what he sees as the practical lessons of history itself: all those “traces of social progress,” as he puts it, “in whose realization socialism has played such a decisive role for 200 years.”

To parse out these traces, Honneth offers his readers an idiosyncratic history of socialism’s rise and fall. After the French Revolution, whose promise of freedom was undermined, he argues, by the excessive individualism unleashed in its wake, socialists came to believe that the revolutionary goals of fraternity and equality could only be realized by reimagining freedom in terms of social cooperation and mutual recognition. This vision of socialism took shape in the context of the unbridled capitalist expansion of the mid-19th century, and it emerged as both a body of ideas and a set of social movements and political parties that sought to check the competitive excesses of the market through solidarity and cooperative interaction. Individual self-realization, these mid-19th-century socialists argued, could come about only through communal efforts that ex-tended beyond liberalism’s faith in individual rights and the republican defense of the nondomination of others. It is this notion of “social freedom”—-unapologetically intersubjective, but unwilling to sacrifice the individual on the altar of an idealized collectivity—that inspires the socialism Honneth hopes to redeem.

But even at its birth, Honneth argues, the socialist project was doomed by several fatal flaws—he calls them “congenital defects”—that have haunted its subsequent history. These largely resulted from refracting the emancipatory goals of the French Revolution through the new socioeconomic realities of the Industrial Revolution. Early utopian socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier, recoiling from the revolutionary violence of the late 18th century, emphasized social and economic change instead of political emancipation; and in the years to come, Marx, Engels, and the socialist movements they inspired also came to focus on what some called the material “substructure” of society, rather than on its cultural or institutional “superstructure.” The result was an excessive focus on economic change at the cost of its political counterpart. Lamentably, this imbalance often led to a dubious reduction of individual liberty to little more than an ideological reflection of bourgeois class interest. It also resulted in a blindness to the complexities of an increasingly differentiated modern world and an exaggerated faith in the role that the proletariat might play in inaugurating a new socialist society.

These questionable assumptions, in Honneth’s view, allowed Marxists to believe that the inevitable crisis of capitalism would blaze a clear developmental path to its redemptive successor. Because of this inevitability, many socialists—even those involved in parliamentary and revolutionary action—demonstrated a near-fatal indifference to those efforts that sought to discipline the market without eschewing the protections afforded by liberal rights and constitutions. Blinkered by an a priori reading of historical trends, Honneth concludes, “socialist theory would henceforth be bound to the virtually transcendent precondition of an already present social movement, even though it was necessarily unclear whether it actually existed in social reality.”

Although praising Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist appreciation of the value of pluralist democracy, Honneth credits the founders of the Frankfurt School with casting the first empirical doubts on the existence of a revolutionary proletariat and thereby helping to renovate the socialist tradition. But with their faith in the working class now lost, many in the Frankfurt School began to develop a socialist theory that no longer had clear links to activism on the ground. As a result, their mode of social critique threatened to descend into moral outrage rather than concrete politics, a weakness of “utopian socialism” that Marx had damned—and, one might argue, that continued to define competing socialist traditions like British Fabianism.

Given that these major pillars of 19th-century socialism crumbled in the early 20th century, one might ask: Can the idea of socialism still motivate our actions, or should we work through our “left melancholy” and acknowledge it as a beloved object whose loss we must mourn and ultimately leave behind? Honneth is committed to the former position, but he insists that socialists need (among other things) to move beyond Marx’s totalistic depiction of capitalism and abandon his belief that it will inevitably be overthrown by a revolutionary class of workers. They must also recognize, Honneth asserts, that whatever socialist society emerges in capitalism’s wake will still need the market mechanisms and political practices that were developed in the liberal bourgeois era.

Drawing on Dewey, among others, Honneth makes a case for this alternative vision of socialism by insisting that we begin to understand the idea as calling for an ongoing process of social and political experiments, one in which “new groups constantly seek to draw public attention to their own demands by attempting to tear down barriers to communication and thereby expand the space of social freedom.” There is a rich tradition of egalitarian politics beyond the Marxist and Leninist parties from which leftists can draw inspiration, but one of the keys to these experiments, for Honneth, is their inherently democratic nature. Although different oppressed groups may air their grievances and push their demands, these socialist experiments must be addressed to the citizenry in general.

Because of the irrevocable differences in culture, language, and values found in modern life, Honneth contends, such a citizenry will never have one clear idea of what a socialist society should look like; instead, it will be the product of democratic deliberation and compromise, and will therefore require fostering what he calls “social freedom” not only in the economic sphere, but also in those of personal relations and political action. Unlike Marx and many of his followers, Honneth refuses to efface the differences between various spheres—economic, political, civil—that make up contemporary social life, and it is here where Hegel becomes relevant. While Marx and Marxists advocated the reconciliation of politics and economics, Hegel argued that by keeping the different spheres of social interaction separate, one could create a more harmonious and organic society.

The division of labor necessitated by the complexity of advanced societies could not be overcome by restoring these societies to some kind of putative preindustrial wholeness. Socialism, as Honneth reimagines it, would have to accept the different spheres that make up modern society. Instead of trying to erode them, it would need to place them into “a rationally integrated, harmoniously arranged order” where the steering mechanism is the “public sphere,” in which all citizens will play an equal role. Taking global interdependence into account, this socialism of the future would also need to operate on both a global and a local scale, and it would have to jettison not only the notion of a revolutionary subject, but also that of revolution itself as a total break with the current order. It would, in other words, have to abandon the older notions of utopia as a perfected form of life and understand socialism as an endless task involving constant experiments in new social arrangements.

Honneth opens The Idea of Socialism with a question: “why do visions of socialism no longer have the power to convince the outraged that collective efforts can in fact improve what appears ‘inevitable’?” And though he forthrightly tells us why such visions, flawed in the ways he cogently describes, have faded in the past, we are still left with the question as to why these visions have not taken off today. There are, to be sure, sporadic resurgences of socialist enthusiasm—exemplified by the Sanders campaign in the United States and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party—but they rarely translate into programmatic change by sympathetic politicians able to gain real power. Too often the ideal of “democratic socialism” turns oxymoronic when put to the test, since building a viable popular coalition dilutes the socialist goals, while focusing strictly on socialist programs often means sacrificing the support of a broad cross section of the population (see the unfolding debacle in Venezuela).

There is, alas, not much in Honneth’s new book to inspire confidence that the idea of socialism can easily be transformed into a practical political and economic program. One obvious reason is that the hangover from the cataclysmic failure of “actually existing socialism” in the former Soviet bloc hasn’t fully lifted. It is, after all, now a full century since the first great historical attempt to repeal and replace capitalism was launched, and we still have very few examples of socialism in practice that have succeeded. Subsequent experiments in the post–Cold War years, such as Hugo Chávez’s, raised hopes for some, but the aftermath has not been encouraging, to put it mildly. The surviving soi-disant socialist countries, such as China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and North Korea, are moving more toward state capitalism—ironically steered by a Leninist vanguard party—than anything that could plausibly be said to serve the cause of the kind of social freedom that Honneth extols.

Nor is it clear that there is much enthusiasm for the more realistic micro—experiments that Honneth hopes will foreshadow these viable alternatives. “No experiments!” served as the successful electoral slogan of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the 1957 Bundestag elections, and there are many on all sides of the political spectrum who have come to share the sentiment. In fact, if we honestly acknowledge the experimental audacity of Trump’s agenda, it may well be that American progressives and leftists will be the ones forced to embrace, at least for the moment, the wisdom of moving slowly and preserving what has already been gained in our decidedly non-utopian system.

There is, of course, considerable and justified discontent with that system, and capitalism in all its motley variety remains an inviting and deserving target. But such discontent now manifests itself more in the volatile idiom of populism than in anything that resembles Honneth’s inclusive idea of democratic socialism. Populism is notoriously hard to define, but one of its abiding characteristics is the division of the world into friends and enemies, victims and perpetrators, the people and the elites. While often protesting real injuries and identifying real villains, it can too quickly degenerate into projection, resentment, and scapegoating, opening its adherents to those demagogic appeals to the baser instincts that so often spur political and social action. Although it offers plenty of recognition (or, perhaps more correctly, misrecognition), it is not of the mutually respectful and affectionate kind that Honneth hopes will underpin the solidarity that could enable his vision of socialism. Despite the efforts of left populists to be inclusive on non-ethnocentric lines, it is sobering to recall that the chilling epithet “enemy of the people” began its long and dubious career with the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror.

It is clearly wrenching for the many people who so long dreamed of a socialist alternative to modern capitalism to acknowledge the diminishing likelihood of realizing their hopes. But arguing that it may finally be time to do so doesn’t mean emulating previous moments of leftist disillusionment, for the idea of socialism, Honneth reminds us, has led to many accomplishments of which its devotees can rightly be proud. It does mean, however, that at least for the moment, it may be more prudent to defend what is increasingly under threat.

Moving beyond old leftist pieties may not be enough, but saving the adjective in “democratic socialism” seems more exigent at the moment than striving to realize the noun. What is left of the American welfare state, which for so long was denigrated by socialists as a strategy for maintaining rather than subverting capitalism, is now under mounting threat. The energy spent trying to disentangle an idealized, unrealized version of socialism that can still inspire confidence from all of the distorted, ineffective, and often counterproductive alternatives that litter its history may thus be better expended on other urgent tasks. Dreaming the utopian dreams that prolong our dogmatic slumber may not provide the most effective ammunition against the menace of dystopia that is looming before us.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy