The Political Limits of Axel Honneth’s Idea of Socialism

5 April 2019

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


Axel Honneth’s Idea of Socialism is an important clarion call for an urgent rethinking of the possibilities of a socialism for the twenty-first century. At the heart of Honneth’s not-so-modest proposal is the attempt to renew socialism by moving it beyond its traditional emphasis on economic domination narrowly construed. Nineteenth-century socialists, he argues, rested their idea of “social freedom” too much on overcoming the singular economic domination of capitalist markets and the industrial economy, and in consequence, bequeathed us an unnecessarily circumscribed vision of freedom largely responsible for the impasse of socialism today.


Drawing directly on his magnum opus Freedom’s Right, Honneth argues that a proper renewal of socialism requires an abandonment of this rather blinkered view of “socialism’s founding fathers” in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as a return to and reconsideration of Hegel’s more expansive theory of social freedom. Honneth draws particular attention to Hegel’s claim in his Philosophy of Right that a proper and more thorough-going freedom can only be achieved through the coordination of intersubjectivity (love, friendship, the family, etc.), civil society (including the market economy), and the state. By building on this more capacious Hegelian notion of freedom, socialists must “interpret liberal rights to freedom not as a restriction but as a necessary condition for economic social freedoms.” More importantly, in the sphere of public authority or the state, Honneth emphasizes “the process of democratic will-formation” as central “to the principle of social freedom.” Integrating a respect for “basic” individual rights, intersubjective freedom, and democratic will-formation, he argues, might just provide the necessary “path to renewal” for contemporary socialism.


Beyond Hegel, Honneth’s enlarged vision of social freedom also draws on John Dewey’s pragmatic conception of public knowledge and social intelligence, Jurgen Habermas’s conceptions of communication and the public sphere, and Emile Durkheim’s notion of a functionally arranged and integrated society. These ideas come together in resonant passages such as the following:

The solution Dewey proposed counts today as everyday pragmatic knowledge and can be understood as a continuation of the already mentioned notion that the stage of the social, unused potentials for social renewal can only be discovered through a process of communication which is as unrestricted as possible. If we take this idea further and determine which authority within a functionally arranged society should take over the task of integrative steering, it will become obvious that the appropriate institution is that of the “public sphere” in which all participants take part as freely as possible.

With this broadened genealogy of social freedom, Honneth provides a new theoretical foundation for a renewed socialism just as contemporary democratic politics seem to be calling for it. But it is precisely here, on the question of democratic politics and “the political” that those interested in bringing the demos back into our understanding of social justice may have the most questions and concerns. Importantly, Honneth’s Idea of Socialism radically expands and relativizes the social (beyond the mere field of market and civil society) so as to include democratic will-formation. At the same time, however, by bringing the demos back in only through the social, he turns his back on the political.


In short, Honneth grounds his liberal democratic renewal of socialism squarely in the social, not the political. Democracy, democratic politics, and democratic will-formation participate in the process of creating social freedom as social forms. His specific reading of Dewey in combination to the sociology of Durkheim and Habermas’s social theory push him on more than one occasion to suggest that social freedom will be achieved as society becomes an “organic structure” or is “functionally arranged.” Honneth writes for example that “the democratic public sphere […] must take over the role of supervising the functioning of the entire organic structure and of making the requisite adjustments.” In other words, the expansion of social freedom beyond the economic to the realm of democratic will-formation requires, as Honneth argues, greater “functional differentiation,” “organic structure,” the integration of the complexity of modes of social action and “adjustments.” One might reasonably ask then: can an organic, functionally arranged democratic society be achieved without a conception of the political? 


As our democratic politics become more polarized, such stark depoliticization seems difficult to accept. Of course, the ambition in raising this issue is not to read against the grain of Honneth’s interpretation. His account is convincing on many levels: the return to socialism’s origins as well as the attempt to ground a rereading of socialism in the ideals of the French Revolution, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and John Dewey (the thinker that Habermas declared the great representative of the democratic wing of left-hegelianism). But are there other ways of reading some of these same sources that would build on Honneth’s insights while also allowing for a democratic politics and opening up toward the political?


One such resource may reside in Hegel’s own account of the relationship between civil society (and the market) and the state. This passage is important for gaining perspective on Honneth’s work of recovery because it is precisely by reconceiving and reinvigorating the connection between civil society or the market and the democratic will-formation of the state that Honneth sees so much potential for reinvigorating socialism through a pragmatic democracy. The challenge however is that in his account, the relationship between these spheres is guided by a principle of “functional differentiation.” That is, he does not seem to see the relationship between these spheres as a potential site of conflict, debate or tension. In fact, he explicitly refuses to give any credence to the contingent forces that once did and might once again produce new and vibrant forms of social legislation. While Honneth certainly recognizes that debate and conflict will take place within the sphere of democratic will-formation, he does not seem to suggest or recognize that the political will also seep into the actual articulation between the different spheres of social freedom themselves, for example in determining the very relationship between civil society and the state.


Hegel, on the other hand, takes great pains to discuss the articulation between these two spheres, raising the essential question of power and the necessity for a constant negotiation in the relationship between individual activity and the ideals of a collective state. The transition from civil society to the state in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right comes in a section entitled “the police and corporations.” It is in this section that he explains how the infinite variety of particular interests within civil society come to serve the general interest of the state. Five key elements shape this relationship. First, Hegel explains that in the form of civil society characteristic of ethical life, the “business of one is carried out on behalf of all” (§235). That is, by pursuing one’s individual interest, one is also necessarily also contributing to the betterment of society as a whole. Second, he insists that in order to ensure this process of contributing to an organic whole through one’s individual actions, exchange and procurement require oversight. That is, since particular interests may in some cases not serve the universal idea of the state, but only the private interest of the individual, oversight by regulatory bodies to ensure their contribution to the state is necessary. Third, if such oversight is not practiced, then purely private self-interest within civil society will not be corrected and will contribute to inequality. Oversight by regulatory powers must therefore reduce such inequalities because, according to Hegel, such impoverishment is necessarily arbitrary and contingent within an ethical life. Fourth, it is therefore regulatory police that guarantees the “universal” inherent in particular interests because it prevents the contingencies of particular actions (like impoverishing others) from taking hold. And finally, fifth, in this process of ensuring the universal qualities of particular activities, “no objective boundaries can be drawn” ( §234).


So in order to create an organic whole in which individual activities in the market or elsewhere are carried out by the individual for her own sake and on behalf of all, regulatory oversight is necessary. This regulatory oversight provides the connecting tissue between civil society and the will-formation that takes place at the level of the state. Moreover, these regulations cannot be clearly defined in advance and may even be boundless. They depend on “customs, constitutions, prevailing conditions, emergencies.” This does however raise a more fundamental problem for Hegel (and for us): if this regulatory oversight has no clear limits (legal or otherwise), what are the mechanisms that prevent this regulatory police from becoming arbitrary? If no boundaries can be set, then how and when is the use of such “unfixed” power to be defined and limited?


Hegel provides two sets of responses to this question, a local and a state response. The first comes in his discussion of corporations where he claims that professional associations and cities must attempt to regulate themselves and remain subject to oversight by police. That is, in this case oversight must remain local in nature. Since the oversight provided by associations and police is local, the risk that it will overstep and the dangers of arbitrariness are minimized. How then might regulation be managed at the level of the state? Here, Hegel expressly moves beyond the realm of the democratic to give power of oversight to the few— but essential—bureaucrats at the head of state and a constitutional monarch who guarantees the state’s unity. These bureaucrats and the monarch, he argues, will not be limited, but there is no danger of arbitrary power because they will identify entirely with the universal ethical ideal of the state and therefore by definition cannot use their power arbitrarily in their own private interest.


Of course, as Marx pointed out in his critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state, such an approach has obvious limitations. A recognition of these limitations ultimately bring us back to Honneth and the political limits of his account of freedom’s right. Indeed, much like Hegel, Honneth seems to evacuate the democratic political from the essential task of monitoring, overseeing, and even “adjusting” the relationship between civil society or the market and the will-formation that takes place within the state.


Paradoxically, it was precisely this limitation that occupied many of the theorists that Honneth suggests were interested in overcoming domination solely within the economic sphere. When Honneth writes that “early socialists ascribe no independent role to political democracy,” he oddly misses the fact that many thinkers who were contributing to the founding of socialism did discuss democracy and recognized it as fundamental. Moreover, they did not cordon it off into a distinct sphere of social action. Marx, Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and many others’ discussions of democracy during this period in fact contributed to politicizing the relationship between the state and society. One needs look no further than Marx’s critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state, or Louis Blanc’s “L’État dans une démocratie” to find contributions to an immanent principle which could guarantee a properly political relationship between civil society and the state—as opposed to Hegel’s relatively weak structural guarantees which hinge on either localism or an unrealistic definition of the constitutional monarch and the bureaucrat. As Marx wrote: “Monarchy cannot, while democracy can, be understood in terms of itself. In democracy none of the moments obtains a significance other than what befits it. Each is really only a moment of the whole Demos.” These early socialists therefore used democracy precisely to describe their ambition to achieve socialist ideals in a non-arbitrary way. For all of these thinkers, as Honneth points out, socialism provided a sophisticated conception of a free egalitarian society. But democracy provided another essential contribution to this socialist innovation: it was at once the political form of free will-formation which was grounded in such equality (as Honneth highlights), as well as the non-despotic means of realizing such freedom by regulating the relationship between civil society and the state. As Louis Blanc argued in The State in Democracy:


If Jacques oppresses Pierre, will the 34 million individuals that make up French society all run to protect Pierre, to protect liberty? It would be foolish to assume so. How then does a society intervene? Through those whom they have chosen to represent them toward this end. But these representatives of society, these servants of all the people, who are they? The State. So the State is none other than society itself, acting as society, in order to prevent oppression and maintain liberty.


In Blanc’s account, democracy was therefore expressly not considered specific to only one social sphere, such as the market. In other words, the action of democracy was not set aside by such early socialists. It was in fact the very means by which the relationship between society and the state was overseen. Since the regulation between these spheres could not be functionally or organically established or pre-determined—Blanc clearly states it would be a mistake to think so – it must be regulated. But it cannot be regulated by distant bureaucrats or a constitutional monarch who Hegel had placed outside the political. In Blanc’s argument, the regulation itself must be democratic, that is political, to the extent that it is managed by representatives who are none other than society acting upon itself as society. And it is from this perspective that the calls for universal suffrage by the démoc-socs, or democratic socialists, of the 1840s must be understood. Not so much as a “basic right” or an attempt to integrate a liberal conception of will-formation, as Honneth suggests, but rather as a necessary means for preventing regulatory administrative power from becoming driven by arbitrary or despotic experts. Democracy, for these early socialists, was the means of preserving the socialist ideal by politically saturating the very relationship between the state and society.


So far from ignoring and setting aside the democratic, these early democratic socialists were searching for ways of increasing popular participation through social movements and the vote. In so doing, they politicized the very nature of the state-society relationship, ensuring that even the relationship between the fundamental spheres of social action, which Honneth so rightly places at the center of our quest for freedom, were political.


Photo Credit: Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Lamartine devant l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris le 25 février 1848 refuse le drapeau rouge, via Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain.


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *