Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

Reviewed by Joan

Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal. Translated by Joseph Ganahl. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), 145 pp., $19.95.

Axel Honneth, a professor of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt and Columbia University, begins this essay by noting that while 100 years ago, socialism was taken seriously by all prominent social theorists, that is not the case today. He maintains that socialism is still relevant, but it must be reformulated and removed from the context of early industrialism. Dismissing postmodernism and the general public’s reification of existing institutions, he claims that the idea of progress in social organization is still viable. Socialism is needed to counter the outrageous effects of global capitalism.

The book was written as a response to the critics of his earlier philosophical treatise, Freedom’s Right (English edition 2014) and he warns us:

It should also be noted that the following considerations have a metapolitical character, since I make no attempt to draw connections to current political constellations and possibilities for action. I will not be dealing with the strategic question of how socialism could influence current political events, but solely how the original intention of socialism could be reformulated so as to make it once again a source of political-ethical orientations. (5)

Honneth sets out to recount the original ideas of socialism and their defects, and then proposes his paths of renewal. He is the current exponent, with revisions, of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. He claims inspiration from G.W.F. Hegel, John Dewey, and Jürgen Habermas.

The first defect, according to Honneth, is that the early socialists (those in 1830s France and England who were followers of Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier) sought to subject the economy to the greater social will in order to realize the French Revolution’s goals: liberty, equality, fraternity. Honneth claims that by fixating on the economy, these thinkers obscured the role that democratic politics could play in achieving their real goal, “social freedom” for all.

Marxism, Honneth maintains, continued to regard economic change as the only source of liberation, and was mistaken to dismiss a democratic political future. Marx erred first by thinking that the revolution was inevitable, so gradual change via legislation was not needed, and then by positing that after the revolution the state would wither away, and an association of producers would represent all of society.

Honneth’s charges are unfair in imputing to all early socialists an exclusive concern with economic change. He does not acknowledge that Owen, Fourier and other 19th century socialists desired to eliminate all institutions that caused misery: organized religion, marriage, snobbery, rote learning, war, even constricting dress, as well as capitalism. Fourier had proposals to tackle problems well beyond economics: the isolation of the elderly, the suppression of women’s intellect, the punishment of children, boring work, lack of self-esteem, sexual deprivation, the cultural monopoly of Paris vis-à-vis the provinces, the practice and glorification of war, and much else still rankling in the 21st century.

Furthermore, while most pre-Marxian socialist pioneers did not regard politics as instrumental to liberation, this was not true of Victor Considerant, the leading disciple of Fourier. His Principles of Socialism (1843), reflected the generic socialism of 1830s France. It regarded democratic politics and gradual reforms as paths to a socialism that would preserve small private property and nationalize monopolies—ideas that are similar to Honneth’s.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the British Fabians supported political democracy, civil liberties, and the gradual, experimental governmental modification of the economy that Honneth (inspired by Dewey) champions. Yet Honneth mentions the Fabians only once, as an inspiration for Eduard Bernstein.

The second defect, according to Honneth, was the assumption that workers desired revolution (or would if they recognized their true interests), and therefore the proletariat was the (only) bearer of socialism: “These theorists claimed that even before their theory takes effect in practice, the interests and desires they sought to justify and bring to fruition already existed objectively in social reality” (38). Consequently, after World War II: “Once the revolutionary proletariat disappeared and the industrial working class had become a minority among wage-workers, it became impossible to view socialist ideals as the intellectual expression of an already existing revolutionary subject” (41).

Honneth is justified in faulting Marxism for its imputation of a revolutionary goal to the working class, but this was not the case with other socialists. Most believed that persuasion and demonstration were necessary to create a thirst for socialism, and they addressed their appeals to the middle class, intellectuals, and even business people, as well as workers. They did not assume—as Honneth’s third defect asserts—that socialism was inevitable.

Honneth’s path to socialism’s renewal includes first the need to reject the faulty assumptions of socialists: “[W]e need to find a complement for all three of these basic assumptions, thereby making socialism a theory aimed at bringing about practical change” (53). His solutions are to be at a “more abstract level,” and their effect must be to increase social freedom “by unleashing forces or potentials already contained in the current society” (52). “Social freedom . . . means taking part in the social life of a community whose members are so sympathetic to each other that they support the realization of each other’s justified needs for each other’s sake” (24). Honneth apparently shares the utopian goal of Marx and Engels : “. . . an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Communist Manifesto).

Social freedom must prevail in the three spheres of family, civil society (i.e., economy), and state. Regarding the economy, Honneth maintains that, in place of the totalizing view of central economic planning,

a renewed version of socialism would have to leave it up to experimentation whether the market, civil society or the democratic constitutional state represents the most appropriate steering principle when it comes to realizing social freedom in the economic sphere. (58-59)

Democratically determined experimentation requires “free communication among the members of society so that problems can be solved in the most intelligent fashion” (60). Honneth argues that the gradual expansion of communication and social interaction throughout history should replace the socialist assumption of economic collectivization as the means to social freedom.

Here Honneth fails to acknowledge the diversity of the socialist tradition, which did not advocate the abolition of all markets, or preclude economic experimentation. He does not discuss the difficulties in reconciling socialism and democracy, and he never mentions the environment or the planetary mutilation that all political systems have abetted.

Honneth creates great expectations: the project of reformulating socialism is most welcome and needed. Nevertheless, his study is disappointing. First of all, his accounting of early socialist theory omits ideas that belie his criticisms, ideas that could be fruitful for a 21st-century socialism. Second, his neo-Hegelian concept of democracy remains very abstract and does not consider the challenges to democratic politics of our time, or those that might well emerge in a future socialist society. Third, even a theoretical revision of socialism should take into account the world as it is today. His concept of social freedom posits that members of communities, whether small or large, share common aims. Isn’t this true for any political entities, even the transnational capitalist class? Furthermore, in an age of both globalization and separatism, his implicit focus on nations needs revision.

Socialist renewal must take into account today’s working class. In Western capitalist countries it is heavily immigrant; many seek assimilation, while some want to maintain an ethnically distinct traditional culture. Their children are likely to seek inclusion in the dominant culture. Manufacturing is increasingly conducted by multinational corporations in developing nations (although Chinese workers in Chinese-owned factories in Italy produce luxury leather goods and textiles “Made in Italy”). Military industries are of great economic importance, not only in the US, but in most developed capitalist countries. They pay well; their workers (and others whose pension funds are invested in the military) are not likely to support either a sudden or a gradual transition to socialism and peace.

The white collar contingent includes a growing “nonprofit” sector and government workers who are “already socialized.” Is it suitable for these workers to determine policy if self-management is part of the socialist plan? What does workers’ control mean under conditions of high technology?

The arts, entertainment, tourism, professional sports, pornography, and drugs provide considerable employment. Many industries are wasteful, gravely hazardous, or immoral. Socialist theory needs to address the problems of conversion.

The disabled and the elderly are receiving basic income. What is their role in a future socialist society? Should each be required to contribute according to capacity? There are a large number of mentally ill and drugged people of all classes. How will they fit into a system of mutual social freedom?

The path of history may have led to wider legal inclusion in citizenship and communication, but there also appears to be a retreat from public participation, into the bushes of hobbies and electronic gadgets. The family is hardly performing any of its traditional roles, except as a locus of consumerism. Can it be democratized, as Honneth suggests, or is another kind of institution more appropriate for a future socialism?

Most threatening to a socialist (or any) future is eternal war, led by the superpower and acquiesced in by even the most purportedly peaceful social democratic nations. The possibility of nuclear annihilation grows stronger. It would be good to find some utopian theories to get us out of that.

The Idea of Socialism has been translated well. The text is brief, with copious notes and an index. It can be recommended to anyone with an interest in current academic social philosophy. Those hoping to see a new brightly lit road to socialism will be disappointed.

Joan Roelofs
Professor emerita, Keene State College
Keene, New Hampshire