Honneth, Dewey, and the Depths of Democracy

4 April 2019


This is the second of three reviews in our series on Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (Polity, 2017).

One of the most surprising and satisfying aspects of Axel Honneth’s timely book The Idea of Socialism is its recovery of the continued vitality of John Dewey’s pragmatic democratic philosophy.  While many critics and theorists of the modern condition ignore Dewey’s contributions (or treat them as something akin to Americana—quaint relics of a bygone, “Metaphysical Club” era), Honneth understands Dewey’s historic achievement as well as his ongoing political relevance. Indeed, as early as 1998, Honneth identified Dewey as key to moving the tradition of radical democracy beyond conventional liberal, republican, or proceduralist narratives. “In his endeavor to justify principles of an expanded democracy,” Honneth noted, Dewey (in contrast to republicanism and democratic proceduralism) took his orientation “not from the model of communicative consultation but from the model of social cooperation.” Here, in Dewey’s robust understanding of “the social” and the interactive, experimental character of all reality, lies the early kernel of the bold claim Honneth advances in this book that Dewey’s ideas might represent “the best chance for socialism” to reestablish its own relevance in the twenty-first century.


Honneth’s rediscovery of Dewey is reminiscent of Jurgen Habermas’s own epiphany when he first met Richard Rorty at a Heidegger conference in 1974 San Diego. Rorty was performing what Habermas called “a strange concert,” trying to harmonize “the dissonant voices of three world-famous soloists”: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and their most unlikely comrade, John Dewey, “the radical democrat and most political of the pragmatists.” Did Dewey really belong in such company?  Habermas wrote that he initially found the association “so obscene” that he lost his temper. Ultimately, however, this was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Dewey (along with Emerson, Whitman, and James) was central to Rorty’s long philosophical crusade for the “priority of democracy over philosophy” and the “priority of technology over theory.” And Habermas gradually embraced a grander conception of Dewey’s pragmatism as the “radical democratic branch of Young Hegelianism” and “the third productive reply to Hegel, after Marx and Kierkegaard.” Indeed, Habermas even suggested that pragmatism—via the quintessential American philosopher of praxis—could provide a much-needed antidote to the historic “weaknesses of Marxism with respect to democratic theory.”


In The Idea of Socialism, Honneth basically picks up where Habermas left off. Here, Dewey becomes a central figure in Honneth’s attempt to wean socialism from a narrow nineteenth-century obsession with predominantly economic and industrial forms of domination and unfreedom. Honneth’s critique of early socialism in this regard is unsparing: “Not only did early socialists restrict the community of solidarity entirely to the economy… [but] for reasons that are hard to understand, [they] simply ignored the entire sphere of political deliberation.” Honneth’s critique here is very much part and parcel of his larger positive project to construct a more expansive idea of “social freedom” beyond the confines of earlier critical traditions. Here too, Dewey becomes an important, if unlikely, comrade. Three elements of Dewey’s thought are particularly significant to Honneth: First, his historical experimentalism, or his pragmatic, experimental stance towards historical processes of transformation that challenged the totalizing and necessitarian features of other social theories. Second, his rich concept of the social, based on his claim that “associational or communal behavior constitutes a basic feature of all things.” And third, Dewey’s similarly thick rendering of the complex socio-historical processes of democratic will-formation. As Habermas anticipated, Dewey’s radical democratic theory operates for Honneth precisely to compensate for socialism’s historic weaknesses with respect to the more democratic and political aspects of social freedom.


Now, as James Kloppenberg and Robert Westbrook have shown in extraordinary detail, the depths of Dewey’s pragmatic democratic theory are surely worthy of such a recovery. Indeed, I would suggest that even Honneth’s current rehabilitation only begins the process of excavating the true depths of Dewey’s radical democratic commitments. For within and beyond Honneth’s recovery of admittedly key features of Dewey’s philosophy lay three distinct levels of mutually-reinforcing processes of democratization that could be usefully deployed in any attempted re-animation of socialism and social freedom today. I would call those three levels or layers of Deweyean democracy: (1) critical democracy, (2) substantive democracy, and (3) social democracy.


Critical Democracy. The first level at which Dewey’s philosophy embraces the democratic is at the intellectual level of critique. For, one of the first tasks of any democracy must be the vigilant and persistent critique of remarkably resilient and subversive forms of anti-democratic thinking. Honneth’s earliest work on Dewey draws attention to Dewey’s first writings where this first level of critical democracy was most transparent. As Morton White suggested some time ago, pragmatism was part of a larger “revolt against formalism” that fueled the original growth of a more empirical and critical American social science. Anti-formalism and critical realism crossed boundaries from literature and law to metaphysics and social ethics, taking direct aim at anti-democratic legal-economic formalisms. As Honneth notes, Dewey’s first essay on the democratic theory was “The Ethics of Democracy.” Notably, this 1888 piece had a villain. For it takes the form of a review of Sir Henry Maine Popular Government.  At the time, Maine was the reigning expositor of a long-standing English aristocratic critique of democracy. Maine’s contempt for the masses burned brightly; he held that “the gradual establishment of the masses in power is of the blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion.” Taking explicit aim at the lyrical American notions of Walt Whitman and George Bancroft that democracy was “the tendency of the ages…which no human policy could hold back,” Maine recommended “a healthful douche of cold water.” He tellingly associated democratic aspiration directly with “socialist fantasy” and “communistic schemes.” Dewey’s 1888 review wasted little time skewering Maine’s rather empty and formalist caricature of democracy in the aristocratic English constitutional tradition. Dewey deemed Maine’s idea of democracy to be:

based upon a view of history which denies to it all meaning….His forebodings for its future rest upon an irrelevant basis; and that the supposed destructiveness is due to the occasional necessity of doing away with the evils engendered of aristocracy; and that the legislative infertility attributed to it goes rather to show that in every state except the democratic, the masses of the people are more opposed to change and progress than the few.

Dewey concluded, “The charge lies against the form of government which breeds such a mass, not against democracy.”


Dewey would go on in this short piece to anticipate much of his future democratic theory. But, here, it is the first level critique of the critiques of democracy—the realist and anti-formalist critique of anti-democracy—that is most telling. In his more mature Liberalism and Social Action, Dewey would similarly skewer classical liberalism for its undemocratic metamorphosis. Dewey famously decried the fact that late nineteenth-century classical liberalism had lost sight of its emancipatory origins and grown: (a) too static (failing to account for dramatic changes in socio-economic context), (b) too negative (emphasizing a formal, legalistic liberty from the state instead of a substantive, positive commitment to human freedom), (c) too economistic (defining freedom in almost exclusively monetary terms and ignoring the importance of cultural expression: science, art, intellect, aesthetics, romance), and (d) too individualistic (failing to recognize human beings as fundamentally changing and growing, associative, social, and relational creatures). In America’s so-called first Gilded Age—also known as the “Lochner Era”—Dewey contended that American liberalism was fast transmogrifying into a reactionary form of laissez-faire apologetics. This is a classic example of critical democracy in intellectual action.


Substantive Democracy. Already in his first essays, however, Dewey also began moving systematically from realist and anti-formalist critique towards a more positive, pragmatic, and political program of what I would call “substantive democracy.” Substantive democracy and not mere procedural or mechanical democracy. Dewey’s contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois understood something of the essence of the distinction when he talked about “abolition democracy,” noting that “the failure of democracy lies in the fact that it has not been tried in precisely those activities of life where it is most important.” Dewey himself was as critical of the limits of nineteenth-century “democratic” politics as Honneth is of nineteenth-century socialism. “The problem of democracy was seen to be not solved, hardly more than externally touched,” Dewey argued, “by the establishment of universal suffrage and representative government.” The mistake common to almost all conventional treatments of democracy was to see it primarily as a matter of “the form of government”—a matter of mere arithmetic concerning governance by the one, the few, or the many. “To define democracy simply as the rule of the many, as sovereignty chopped up into mincemeat,” Dewey held, was the product of “abstract and purely mechanical” formalism. It fundamentally erred in mistaking narrow democratic means for democracy, as opposed to larger substantive ends.


While most commentators, like Maine, focused on democracy as a simple matter of constitutional structure, representational arithmetic, and electoral instrumentalities, substantive democracy required that voting and officeholding as democratic tools also secure greater democratic objectives. Dewey was forceful and unambiguous on this very point: “Universal suffrage, recurring elections…and the other factors of the democratic government are means…for realizing democracy….They are not a final end and a final value.” Substantive democracy implied “something more”—something beyond the “quantitative or numerical” characteristics of “a special political form,” beyond “a method of conducting government,” beyond “something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany.” To hold otherwise—“to erect means into the end which they serve”—was to defend an empty formalism, what Dewey provocatively dubbed democratic “idolatry.”


What, then, was that “something more”—the larger substantive elements and ends to be served by democratic mechanisms, procedures, and tools? Something of a hint is contained in the actual substantive and pragmatic policies (i.e. ends, outputs) endorsed by Dewey and American progressive reformers, as Honneth puts it, “in the experimental search for the most comprehensive answer to a socially problematic situation.” In a crucial point elided by almost all conventional democratic theorists, the essence of substantive democracy inhered precisely in the open-ended range of pragmatic, problem-solving policies that advanced larger democratic ends and goals. Dewey and Tuft’s extraordinary text Ethics culminated, as it had to, in very specific experimental policy proposals like Henry Seager’s positive “Programme of Social Legislation.” For the heart of substantive democracy implicated the whole spectrum of complex and elaborate policies of public provision—for the maintenance and advancement of public welfare, public health, public safety, and public utility. This is where public problems were solved and technologies of government and law were deployed. Herein was Rorty’s priority of democracy over philosophy and technology over theory. Most important for substantive democracy were those provisions aimed at the equalization of public citizens and the eradication of unequal barriers to communication, interaction, and possibility. Here, substantive democracy placed special emphasis on those areas of legal-economic public policymaking that involved the distribution and redistribution of public resources: public goods, public services, public benefits, and even public property.


Social Democracy. Now, of course, Dewey fully recognized that the projects of critical democracy and substantive democracy could be pursued via means that were not inherently democratic.  Elite intellectual critique and administrative expertise, for example, could be marshaled quite effectively for democratic ends at the first two levels of democratization. But as Dewey and Honneth fully suggest, a truly radical democracy requires a third level of development and a further socialization. This is what Dewey referred to with deceptive simplicity as democracy as “a way of life. The “political and governmental phase of democracy,” was but a vehicle for “realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality.” This was “a way of life, social and individual.” The “key-note of democracy as a way of life,” was the broader substantive and equal due regard for the welfare of each and every member of the community in the active, ongoing creation of the conditions of collective life together.


That was what Dewey meant when he held that “the problem of democracy” necessarily involved the problem of “social organization,” as “all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them.” Obviously, this rendering of a new democracy was self-consciously anti-aristocratic and egalitarian in all its manifestations. “The aristocratic ideal” of “the elect few,” Dewey asserted, left “the many outside the pale with no real share in the commonwealth.” Where aristocracy worked a basic “blasphemy against personality,” the new “democratic movement” included every human “personality” according to the “ideal of equality” in which “democracy lives and moves.” Social democracy entailed a broad ethic of inclusion, nondiscrimination, and the removal of all barriers to social interaction. As Dewey concluded, “Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith…in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of material or cultural wealth.” “Intolerance, abuse, calling of names…because of differences of race, color, wealth, or degree of culture” were nothing short of “treason to the democratic way of life”


This new critical and substantive vision of social democracy was a tall order.  No wonder Honneth can harness it effectively in his larger effort to re-envision socialism and broaden social freedom in the contemporary era. This is a most welcome intervention, especially given the much-commented-upon democratic deficit in recent economic and political trends.  We seem to live again in what Hannah Arendt called “dark times”—periods in which the “public realm” has become so “obscured,” so “dubious,” and so “despised,” that people ask no more of politics or democracy than that it serve personal, private, individual, and ultimately petty interests. In just such times, I concur with Honneth that a return to John Dewey offers up a new way of thinking about the potentialities of a new democracy—simultaneously radical, political, and social.


Photo Credit: Underwood and Underwood via the Library of Congress, John Dewey, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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