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  • The Idea of Socialism by Axel Honneth
  • Martin Ejsing Christensen
Axel Honneth
The Idea of Socialism
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017. Transl. Joseph Ganahl. x+ 145 pp., incl. index.

The interaction between American pragmatism and German critical theory has a long history. While Horkheimer and Adorno, the founding fathers of critical theory, were quite critical of the native American philosophy they encountered when they fled from Nazi Germany, American pragmatism has had a considerable influence on both Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth—the two most prominent thinkers within critical theory’s 2nd and 3rd generations. As is well known, however, their prime inspiration has been George Herbert Mead’s symbolic interactionist sociology as well as Peirce’s theory of signs, while James’ and Dewey’s thinking has played a minor role for them. However, in Axel Honneth’s most recent book, The idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, this situation has changed: here, it is Dewey’s thinking on politics, and especially his The Public and its Problems, which serves as the main inspiration.

As the title indicates, the main purpose of Honneth’s short (145 pages) book is to renew the socialist idea, stressing its relevance for the contemporary world. As Honneth presents it, this project is motivated by the fact that even though we have witnessed the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and many people are outraged by the rising levels of inequality, socialist ideas seem to have lost their “utopian energy” and ability to inspire people to believe in a world beyond capitalism. The main question that Honneth wants to answer in his book is why this is so. Why have socialist ideas lost their “utopian energy” or “virulence”? And how can they be reconstructed in such a way that they, once again, will be able to make people “imagine a society beyond capitalism”?

In the book’s first part, the short ‘Introduction’, Honneth lays the groundwork for his own analysis by reviewing and dismissing three ‘popular’ explanations of why the socialist idea has lost its power [End Page 105] to inspire. According to the first explanation, the main cause is the collapse of communist regimes in 1989, which meant that that the socialist idea lost whatever support it had from actually existing alternatives to capitalism. As Honneth sees it, there are two problems with this explanation. On the one hand, most people had already stopped thinking of the communist regimes as living incarnations of socialism long before 1989. On the other hand, the lack of actually existing alternatives to capitalism did not seem to prevent the early socialist from believing fervently in the idea of socialism. This explanation, Honneth concludes, does not work.

According to the second explanation, the idea of socialism has lost its power to inspire due to “postmodernism”, which has replaced the idea of historical progress with the idea of eternal recurrence so that it does not make sense to hope for a better future anymore. As Honneth points out, however, it does not seem as if the idea of “an open future of continuous progress” has been weakened when it comes to medicine or human rights, so this explanation does not seem to work either. Finally, there is the third explanation, according to which social institutions have come to be seen as merely given, reified structures impervious to change. This is the explanation that Honneth finds most appealing, even though he does not think that it will work, either. Societal relations have, as he points out, always been reified, but in former times this did not prevent socialist ideals from unmasking and destroying “the phenomenon of reification”. So instead of just accepting the reification of social relations as the reason why the idea of socialism has lost its “utopian energy”, the big question for Honneth becomes, rather, why socialist ideals today have lost the ability to unmask this reification.

At a general level, Honneth’s attempt to answer this question has a quite simple structure. When the socialist movement was born in the wake of the French Revolution it was inspired by a core idea that is still valid today. Unfortunately, however, a number of auxiliary assumptions...


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pp. 105-109
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