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The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal.

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

Axel Honneth (Goethe University Frankfurt)

Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017, x + 145 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-5095-1212-6

Faced with the threat of mass extinction, outraged by financial oligarchs' global larceny, and terrified by growing levels of inequality and precarisation, the world's masses seem unable to unite under the banner of "socialism" and aspire to radical international rejuvenation (vii). Quite the opposite, "the ethical force of the future" appears to be the long-mistreated "religion" of our forefathers, while "socialism is regarded as a creature of the past" (viiviii). What happened? And can socialism ever regain some of its lost clout?

Honneth's book aims at answering these two interrogatives. In order to address the former, Honneth offers a concise and well-informed account of the history of socialism (chapters I & II). To address the latter, he identifies and discusses some possible "paths of renewal" (chapters III & IV), which are explicitly reminiscent of the libertarian socialist tradition of "Socialisme ou barbarie" and "Cornelius Castoriadis" in particular (52). Honneth's insights start already in the book's introduction, however, in which he argues that the peculiar "disconnect between" 21st-century people's "outrage" and their "vision of a better world" could be the result of three main factors (1): "the collapse of communist regimes in 1989", which weakened the notion of a viable "alternative to capitalism" (2); the cultural influence of "postmodernism", which rejects the linear and progressive interpretation of history fuelling much of socialism's appeal (2); and the quasi-mystical "[r]eification ... of capitalism" into the given structure of the world: "a fetishistic conception of social relations." (5)

As regards the history of socialism (chapters I & II), the little-known roots of the term itself belong to "Catholic theologians" of the 18 th century, who "referred to a tendency in the works of Grotius and Pufendorf" to assume that "the legal order of society should be founded on the human need for 'sociality' rather than divine revelation." (6) Better known is the use of this term by 19th-century Owenites "in England and the Fourierists in France", who were horrified by "the misery of the working masses" under the prevailing "economic sphere", which had clearly betrayed the melioristic aspirations of "the French Revolution" (7-9). Within the revolutionary motto, "liberty" and, above all, "fraternity" played a key-role in their understanding and policy plans, which included novel "forms of production and distribution. to ensure that production serve the moral purpose of stripping the liberty proclaimed by the French Revolution of its merely private and self-interested character" (12-13). Honneth cites Durkheim, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, Blanc and "[t]he young Karl Marx" among such socialists, stressing the influences of Rousseau, Hegel and Feuerbach in their reformist or revolutionary plans aimed at bringing about human communities in which "mutual responsibility and sympathy" can be the decisive "modes of behavior" (16-24).

Honneth's historical account shows how "the normative intuitions of the early socialists went far beyond traditional conceptions of distributive justice" and involved profound changes in the economic, political and cultural institutions, because only through such alterations of the status quo can emerge "communitarian life-form[s]" in which "an atmosphere of mutual sympathy" may prevail (27-29). The preconditions for such alterations were already in place, according to all socialists, whether reformist or revolutionary: the frustration and resentment of oppressed working men and women; the dismay and shame of many employers; and the crisis-prone character of the capitalist order, which suggested the necessity of its transformation. The empirical study of the working class conducted, inter alia, by Weber and "the early Frankfurt School" will show, however, that 19th-century socialists were possibly the victims of over-optimism, which affected also their progressive interpretation of history--itself a legacy of liberals such as "Turgot and Condorcet" (40-42).

In chapter III, Honneth takes his first stab at a "post Marxist form" of socialism that may be viable and successful in the 21st century. Specifically, it comprises revisions to the "reconstruction of the economic system" envisioned by earlier socialists and to their conception of "a future fraternal society" based upon "social freedom within the economic sphere" alone (5355). On the one hand, Honneth is open to the possibility of social "experimentation" highlighted in the 20th century by John Dewey: there is an openness to market structures, "civil society", and State power that socialists have historically underestimated or even excluded a priori because of a deterministic outlook (58-59). Then, along the line of the later Frankfurt School to which he belongs, Honneth stresses the importance of participative "communication" among social groups of all kinds and citizens at large as the fundamental engine of social experimentation, ideal as well as practical or institutional (61). Open, open-minded and open-ended debate and deliberation are key to non-violent experimentation in social possibilities, which are hampered mostly, "today just as in Marx's day", by the unimaginative and dogmatic orthodoxy of economics, whose adherents have been seeking "for over 200 years to justify the capitalist market as the only efficient means for coordinating economic action"--and in a fairly restrictive interpretation of the capitalist market itself (67). Yet alternative conceptions and actual historical experiments have abounded over the same 200 years. With regard to the former, Honneth mentions K. Polanyi, A. Etzioni, A. Hirschman, F. Kambartel and E.O. Wright. With regard to the latter, he mentions various forms of nationalisation and socialisation "of the means of production", "consumption collectives", trade "union ... experiments under real conditions", "social legislation" of "the labor market", "co-determination" on the workplace and "minimum wages" (70-73).

Finally, in chapter IV, Honneth takes a second stab at a post-Marxist form of socialism that may be viable and successful in the 21st century. Honneth starts by criticising traditional socialism for not taking full account of important functional differentiations preventing their ideal of "social freedom" to adapt to "the reality of a functionally differentiated society" (77). These differentiations include: morals and law, the social and the political spheres, the "public" one and the "private" one, "the economy and the state", men and women (79-85). Not only were earlier socialists superficial in their acknowledgment and study of them. With Marx, they also came to reduce them all to the economic sphere, thus producing a picture or reality, and plans for action therein, that were largely inadequate and marked by a deeply illiberal streak of "determinism" (87). These functional differentiations are a fact; hence they must be fully recognised and studied. However, they are social, not natural facts; a fortiori, societies can and should be able to reconsider them and experiment with them, rather than reifying them into presupposed eternal structures of human associations.

By means of "free cooperation", societies can tinker and tweak "the economic system", "democracy and personal relationships" so as to approach the ideal of genuine "social freedom", namely a condition under which each person interacts on a par with his or her peers without threat of "coercion and influence", for the sake of the common good (89-90). Analogously to a complex living and thinking organism, rather than some kind of machine, societies can adapt to changing circumstances, grow, learn, reflect and experiment, seeking maximal social freedom by "a process of communication which is as unrestricted as possible." (96) Thus, Honneth concludes by describing the specific chief circumstances of today's world, in which the economy is largely "global", "family" and personal life is not, and democratic self-determination somewhere in the middle (100). Capitalism is here to stay, according to him, but democratic institutions can be utilised effectively to modify it, while emancipation and experimentation in personal life can serve as a tangible token of the kind of freedom the new socialists should aspire to.

Honneth's 2015 book, effectively translated by Joseph Ganahl for its 2017 English-language publication, is unsurprisingly well-written, informative and interesting. Its author is, after all, today's leading member of the Frankfurt School and a major figure within contemporary Continental political thought. Whether the socialism it depicts and proposes can inspire today's masses in the same pervasive and persuasive ways in which its criticised pre-1989 forms did, it is a question that only future history will answer. As a student of these matters, I am inclined to believe that, devoid of the eschatological, prophet-driven, mass-ritualistic and, in short, quasi-religious character of several of its earlier versions (e.g. Owenism, Saint-Simonianism, Marxism- Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism), its appeal is bound to be a limited affair, which might not "win [world citizens] over for [Honneth's] project" any time soon, but a handful of well-meaning academics (101). The gross inequality and the species-threatening ecological collapse visible in today's global society call for solutions that participatory communication can perhaps facilitate. However, the sheer psychological pressure of the former problem and the sheer magnitude of the latter, combined with their urgency, may actually call for some more ruthless solution. As unappealing as they may sound, 'eco-Leninism', 'eco-Stalinism' or 'eco-Maoism' might be what is needed, at least in the short- and medium term--and still from a socialist perspective (e.g. China's top-down, fast and conspicuous strides towards becoming the world's leading green economy). Let us save the planet and make a decent life possible for all, first of all. Then there may be time for fluid, democratic, dialogical experimentation.

Giorgio Baruchello, University of Akureyri
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Author:Baruchello, Giorgio
Publication:Economics, Management, and Financial Markets
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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