‘The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal’ by Axel Honneth reviewed by Amogh Sahu, Dave Schafer, Ross Wolfe

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016. 216 pp., pb
ISBN 9781509531370

About the reviewer

Amogh Sahu is a PhD student in Philosophy at Columbia University. He works on the intersection …


About the reviewer

David Schafer is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy in the School of Professional and Continuing …


About the reviewer

Ross Wolfe is a writer, historian, and architecture critic living in New York. …


Axel Honneth is a leading third-generation representative of the Frankfurt School, the successor to Jürgen Habermas as head of the Institute for Social Research. Known for his signature emphasis on ‘recognition [Anerkennung]’, he has written more than a dozen books expanding upon themes first developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Whereas his earlier work took its cues mostly from the self-consciousness section of The Phenomenology of Spirit, his 2011 treatise Freedom’s Right looked more to Elements of the Philosophy of Right for inspiration. Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism is largely a continuation of the arguments he has previously advanced. Given the renewed interest in socialist politics in the US and around the world, this release is a timely effort to engage with its contemporary legacy by an author who can be thought of as a sort of estranged fellow-traveler. Nevertheless, The Idea of Socialism is riddled with so many category errors and tendentious interpretations that it ultimately falls short of the mantle of critical theory Honneth wants to take up.

The book is divided into four chapters, about twenty-five pages apiece. Following a brief preface and an introduction – where he goes over The Idea of Socialism’s genesis from the debates around his previous writing and its enduring salience amidst widening inequalities – Honneth launches into his exposition. In the opening chapter the theme is social freedom, which according to him was the ‘original, groundbreaking idea’ of nineteenth-century socialists (25). Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the overarching principle of Freedom’s Right, although in that book he credited Hegel more with its initial formulation. By contrast, here social freedom was the achievement of thinkers like Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon, who successfully counterbalanced the three famous norms bequeathed by the French Revolution: liberté, égalité and fraternité.. Social freedom is for Honneth not the result of individuals who merely act ‘with one another [miteinander]’, but ‘for one another [füreinander]’ as well, such that ‘the aims of the members of a community not only overlap, but are intersubjectively intertwined’ (23). Even if the pioneers of socialism never referred to it thus themselves, he distills the principle of social freedom as the normative essence of their demands for a radically restructured society (10).

Despite the prescriptive force of this principle, Honneth holds that it was hamstrung by its origin in the context of breakneck industrialization throughout Europe. He enumerates a threefold critique of early socialist theory: 1) its reductive economic fundamentalism, whereby revolutionaries need to only change the mode of production in order to change everything; 2) its anachronistic identification of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject of history, which makes socialism simply a theoretical reflection of a now-dead practical movement; 3) its misplaced confidence in the historic inevitability of socialism, assuming the necessity of this revolution for further growth. One flows from the other, informing what comes next. As Honneth sees it, these were the ‘three birth defects’ (26) of classical socialist doctrines that together account for their ‘antiquated intellectual structure’ (which forms part of the title of the second chapter). Reviewing this sequence of premises, he states that ‘if we take a closer look at the three basic conceptual assumptions I have shown to be the inherited burdens of socialism, we see that they are entirely bound to the […] conditions of early capitalist modernization’ (48). Just as Honneth before sought to isolate its essential core with the concept of social freedom, now he removes its accidental aspects.

With these tasks out of the way, The Idea of Socialism proceeds to offer two potential ‘paths of renewal.’ Chapters three and four, respectively, deal with economic and political schemes Honneth hopes might breathe life back into the beleaguered socialist project. Methodologically, he adopts the trial-and-error approach of the American pragmatist John Dewey, preferring experimental flexibility to the dialectical rigidity of Marx. Instead of ‘the hitherto dominant faith in the necessity of progress within socialism,’ Honneth recommends ‘a kind of historical experimentalism’ (62). Scattershot proposals ensue, ranging from Mondragón-style ‘solidarity funds’ to Red Vienna housing complexes. ‘Guaranteed minimum income’ likewise receives a hearing, since for him it presents the opportunity to ‘socializ[e] the market from below’ (70-71). Unlike Habermas, Honneth regards the marketplace as a norm-laden ‘sphere of social freedom’ (2014: 179-182) in which subjects reciprocally recognize each other. Proudhon’s mutualism appeals to his sensibilities for no other reason (64). ‘The principle of social freedom in the economic sphere,’ he declared at a symposium on Freedom’s Right, ‘can be realized solely through market socialism’ (2015: 208). Because it is not reducible to instrumental rationality, the market is open to ethical contestation, raising objections to capital rent and speculative profit at the level of ideas (69).

Honneth closes the book with a long discussion of democracy as a ‘form of life’ not restricted to the political sphere, encompassing broader processes of collective will-formation. Legal rights and civil liberties were too often denigrated by early socialists as liberal distractions, he alleges, since these fell outside the narrow purview of the economy. Due to their lack of attention to what Honneth terms the ‘functional differentiation of society,’ revolutionaries exhibited a glaring Rechtsblindheit, or blindness to the importance of law (81). Yet again Hegel’s thought serves as the model here, for the various spheres – of personal, productive, and political relationships, which in turn correspond to the family, the economy, and the state – form separate but complementary organic subsystems ‘like organs of the body’ (90). And in order to harmonize these independently-operating spheres it is vital that communicative barriers be broken down, ensuring all are treated as equals and no one’s input is left out (64-66); in this manner, Honneth assimilates his longstanding focus on ‘struggles for recognition’ to the ideological edifice of socialism. Refreshingly, he insists on the global scope of any social transformation in light of capitalism’s international reach. Even then, in his opinion it would be ‘hasty and imprudent’ to consider revolutionary politics a strictly internationalist endeavor (101), as this might preclude local experimentation.

Of course Honneth would like to portray his own preexisting framework as not just compatible with, but the best possible articulation of, socialist goals. While he is very sympathetic to these goals, the heir to Horkheimer and Adorno believes they must today be rescued from what he takes to be their failure. No doubt Honneth is to be commended for broaching the topic at all. Furthermore, he is admirably candid and forthright in his revisionism, calling for ‘a revised socialism’ (ix) and citing the reformist line of Eduard Bernstein with approval (116-117). If the narrative is at times a bit simplistic, in its best moments The Idea of Socialism can be quite subtle. Use is made of archival resources from the earliest years of the Institute for Social Research, in particular etymological investigations by Carl Grünberg (110), its director between 1924 and 1929. Gerald Cohen’s analytic recasting of socialism as ‘a purely normative alternative to liberal theories of justice’ (52, 121) is submitted to a surprising yet astute criticism. The problems Honneth touches on are difficult, and cannot be dismissed out of hand: 1) economism is a charge that can indeed be applied to many socialists; 2) workers at present are by and large depoliticized, or worse have succumbed to reaction; 3) revolution has not come to pass, as Marx predicted it would long ago.

A number of frustrating drawbacks are readily apparent in the text, however, not least of which is Honneth’s shifting attitude toward Marxism. In a 1989 article included in his early essay collection The Fragmented World of the Social, he had hoped ‘to redeem the remnants of Marx’s intentions for contemporary theory’ (1995: 4); The Idea of Socialism represents a departure from the ‘redemptive critique’ undertaken there. Marxian socialism is now for him passé, as witnessed by his astoundingly arrogant assertion that ‘[w]e need ideas that reflect the more advanced consciousness of our day […] if socialism is to have a future, it must be revived in a post-Marxist form’ (53). Sartre’s old quip that attempts to go ‘beyond’ Marxism always wind up resuscitating pre-Marxist notions retains its share of truth here (1968: 7), particularly insofar as Honneth blames Marx for ‘putting an end to the “experimental” early socialist disposition’ (56). He maintains in any case that the various classical theories of socialism, despite their openness to experimentation, were flawed as a consequence of the industrial age in which they were formulated. Yet his own version is somehow supposed to escape such fleeting accidents of time. What is it about Honneth’s historical vantage point that makes the conceptualization he puts forward immune to this same line of criticism?

Quite a few Marxists, moreover, tried to address the problems identified in The Idea of Socialism. Vladimir Lenin ruthlessly criticized economistic tendencies in the Russian labor movement as ‘vulgar Marxism,’ upbraiding them for their limited perspective. Georg Lukács, much like Lenin, argued that workers were susceptible to the reified relations of bourgeois society, a fact Honneth himself noted in his Tanner Lectures on Reification. ‘Lukács reasoned the proletariat’s self-awareness had not been able to get much further than “trade union consciousness” […] as Lenin had understood,’ he explained in that study (2008: 7). Revolution, or better its non-occurrence, preoccupied the first generation of the Frankfurt School, something Alfred Sohn-Rethel remarked upon in the preface to Intellectual and Manual Labor:

The new development of Marxist thought which these people [Lukács, Bloch, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Kracauer, Adorno, and Marcuse] embodied evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of a revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the Christmas 1918 gun-battle for the Marstall in Berlin, as well as the massacre of the Spartacus uprising that following winter (Sohn-Rethel 1978: xi-xii).

Critical theory is another point of contention in The Idea of Socialism. Honneth gives an appreciative nod in the direction of his institutional forebears for their skepticism that workers are automatically predisposed to socialism: ‘We must acknowledge the early Frankfurt School under the guidance of Max Horkheimer as the first group to present empirically-founded doubts in the sociological fiction of a revolutionary working class’ (40). For all their misgivings, however, the premier theorists of the Institute – aside from Horkheimer, toward the end – never broke from Marxism. Adorno’s 1942 ‘Reflections on Class Theory’ and 1968 article on ‘Late Capitalism or Postindustrial Society?’ attest to his orthodoxy. Not by chance did Honneth write these pieces off as ‘underinformed, uninspired, and almost dogmatic’ (2009: 54). On this score, the founders of critical theory were still too attached to the Marxist faith, whereas the author of The Idea of Socialism is bravely willing to abandon it once and for all. Much like Karl Otto-Apel and Habermas, who turned to the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce and George Herbert Mead, he does so in favor of a philosophy Horkheimer and Marcuse had both fought: pragmatism.

Pragmatism is for Honneth, as for Habermas, ‘a long-overlooked variant of Young Hegelianism’ (Habermas 2006: 131). Dewey is the principal reference in The Idea of Socialism, as mentioned above, invoked throughout the latter half of the book. Significantly, Honneth contends that ‘Dewey operates with a speculative conception which bears a distant resemblance to Hegel’ (60). Yet in his exchange with Trotsky, whose Stalinist show trial he publicly reviewed in 1938, Dewey’s hostility to Marxism owed in large part to its method of materialist dialectic. Thus he complained of ‘a kind of absolutism’ in the Marxist subordination of means to ends, ‘inherited presumably from its Hegelian origin’ (Dewey 2008: 354). Logic to the pragmatists was the same thing as inquiry; hence the name of Dewey’s last major work, upon which Marcuse issued the damning verdict that ‘the shriveling of theory to the [standard procedure] of scientific experiments and of praxis to experimentation itself encroaches onto the theory of society’ (Marcuse 2011: 265). Verification by Baconian testing is the alpha and omega of knowledge for pragmatism, which transposes the modus operandi of the natural sciences in its treatment of social objects (Horkheimer 2004: 33). In stark contrast, Frankfurt School theorists start from the category of totality: this is where Hegel’s influence can be felt the most, but this is exactly what Honneth leaves behind.

Based on his rejection of this category, the philosophical credentials of The Idea of Socialism can even be brought into question. Honneth hangs his hat on his putative Hegelianism, so this cuts very deep. ‘Marx’s conceptual approach,’ he concedes, stands ‘in the Hegelian tradition of thinking in terms of totality. As valuable as the Marxist analysis of capitalism was to the socialist movement, the totalizing features of this theory constituted a great disadvantage’ (56-57). Opposed to this view of society as an integral totality, Honneth speaks of distinct social spheres that obey their own peculiar rationales; his language cannot be considered neutral here. For Hegel, the institutions covered in Elements of the Philosophy of Right were not so neatly demarcated. To regard the modern state as a mechanical assemblage of spheres with discrete functions is the sort of bundle theory he would have scorned. Each institution was suffused by spirit, and related to one another on that ideal basis. Reversing Hegel’s thesis, Marx simply added that this spirit is alienated at present. Under capitalism, these institutions are animated by none other than capital. Can one really uphold the family as a non-economic institution, when it is still the main vehicle for the transmission of property, through inheritance? Governments are also obviously beholden to vested class interests. Political economy itself was the object of Marx’s most sustained and trenchant critique.

Socialists since Marx have oriented themselves toward these various institutions critically, rather than imagine they supply post-metaphysical norms for a rational society. Normative foundations are only required by those who have strayed from the via negativa of critical theory. Whereas Marxists saw the family, the economy and the state as transitory phenomena doomed to wither away as soon as capitalist relations were overcome, Honneth is obliged to hypostatize them as more or less permanent because they provide him with positive maxims of ethical life. His reliance on norms suggests a vision of subjectivity frozen into a petrified set of principles, principles that individuals must lean upon in order to engage in social criticism. Yet subjectivity can be conceived otherwise, as human self-activity, which is the true patrimony of Hegelianism. Labor is for Marx the material, sensuous form of this self-activity, not just transhistorically (qua humanity’s perennial metabolism with nature) but specifically with regard to capitalism (in its waged form, as capital’s immanent antithesis). Rather than rules regulating behavior or guiding critique, what is given to subjects by reason in history are the raw capacities opened up and refined over time by the saga of society’s development.

Although a laudable effort in parts, The Idea of Socialism is best read as a symptom of the very thing it seeks to deny: historical regression. It refuses to take seriously the possibility raised by critical theorists like Adorno and Marcuse, namely that the current moment is marked by regress rather than progress toward a ‘more advanced consciousness.’ For these theorists, the consumer comforts provided to the working class under Spätkapitalismus have only further entrenched forms of domination in ever-more insidious ways. Proletarian consciousness as such, more so than objective circumstances, is impoverished as a result. Just as his mentor Habermas claimed in 1980, Honneth seems to accept that this pessimism undermines the emancipatory goals its proponents championed in the first place – even though this is hardly a settled debate. One is left to wonder what Frankfurt School theory would look like today if Alfred Schmidt had taken over directorship of the Institute after Adorno’s death, followed perhaps by Hans-Georg Backhaus or Helmut Reichelt, rather than fall into the hands of Habermas in 1983.

9 January 2020


  • Dewey, John 2008 Means and Ends The Later Works, Volume 13: 1938-1939 Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Habermas, Jürgen 2006 John Dewey’s Quest for Certainty Time of Transitions trans. Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky, Malden, MA: Polity
  • Honneth, Axel 1995 The Fragmented World of the Social: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy trans. Charles W. Wright, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Honneth, Axel 2008 Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea trans. Joseph Ganahl, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Honneth, Axel 2009 Pathologies of Freedom: On the Legacy of Critical Theory trans. James Ingram et al, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Honneth, Axel 2014 Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life trans. Joseph Ganahl, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Honneth, Axel 2015 Rejoinder Critical Horizons 16:2 trans. Owen Hulatt.
  • Horkheimer, Max 2004 The Eclipse of Reason New York, NY: Continuum Books.
  • Marcuse, Herbert 2011 Review of John Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry Transactions 46:2 trans. Phillip Deen.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul 1968 The Search for a Method trans. Hazel E. Barnes, New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • Sohn-Rethel, Alfred 1978 Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel New York, NY: Macmillan Press.

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