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.”