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Review: Axel Honneth’s “The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal”

While this may be a fair criticism of socialist intellectuals, it isn’t obvious to me that all socialists were as myopically economistic as Honneth suggests.”


Once thought to be a relic, there is no doubt that socialism has been making a comeback recently. For the first time in many decades, a self-described democratic socialist has initiated a major campaign for the American presidency, where he has been polling competitively. A growing percentage of Americans claim that some form of socialism would be desirable. And left-wing outlets such as Current Affairs and Zero Books have seen considerable success agitating for openly socialist politics. At the same time, a large number of conservative critics have emerged bemoaning that a political ideology thought to be dead and buried has risen from the grave. The National Review summarized the development nicely in its May 2019 issue “Against Socialism” featuring a wide variety of critics:

“Socialism is back. T. S. Eliot said that, ‘there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.’ We thought our Gained Cause was having vanquished domestic socialism forevermore after the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton operated within the broad economic consensus established by Ronald Reagan, and when Republicans called Barack Obama a socialist, some on the left considered it a racially charged smear. But here we are: A self-avowed socialist nearly won the Democratic nomination in 2016 and is a serious contender this time. Another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is the hottest thing in progressive politics today. The Green New Deal and Medicare for All are proposals for sweeping aggrandizements of government power on a scale not seen in this country since the New Deal, if ever.  Meanwhile, some on the right are raising questions about free markets, or even rejecting them.”

All this commentary belies certain fundamental questions about what socialism is, what socialists want, and socialists’ real prospects at achieving power. The term’s resurgent popularity has ensured it has been associated with everything from calls for greater democracy to anxieties about socialist authoritarian states. Socialists often point to highly successful egalitarian states such as Sweden and Norway as exemplars of the doctrine, while critics prefer to focus on failing states such as Venezuela. The post-modern conservative President insists that the United States will, “never be a socialist country,” while authors writing for the Jacobin claim socialists have always played a key role in making the country a fairer and more prosperous place. Into this fray have stepped a number of commentators with books, such as the forthcoming Why You Should Be A Socialist by Nathan J. Robinson and Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist ManifestoAxel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism is one of the best pieces in this genre: an accessible and intellectually engaging short book that offers both a stirring defense and a few pointed criticisms of socialism yesterday and today.

Liberalism and Social Freedom

Honneth is a German philosopher in the tradition of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and he has been writing on the topic of democracy and society for decades. The Idea of Socialism is, in part, a response to his earlier book Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Lifewhich some critics argued lacked a sufficiently ambitious outlook. In The Idea of SocialismHonneth argues that socialism offers the promise of a more robustly democratized social life, characterized by greater levels of respect and equality than what one sees in liberal-capitalism. This is related to Honneth’s calls for greater civic freedom generally. To understand the argument of The Idea of Socialism we need to grasp this point—and how Honneth contrasts civic freedom with the standard liberal freedoms.

Honneth argues that contemporary liberalism has tended to understand freedom in two ways. In his seminal essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin distinguished between negative liberty (typically secured by classical liberal rights to life, expression, property and so on) and positive liberty, which is usually connected to more radical claims about what is materially necessary to realize a more substantive vision of freedom. The arguments of Rousseau circa his critique of private property in The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality are an example of agitating for positive liberty. As Berlin puts it late in the essay, one of the primary developments in liberalism in the late 20th century was a (theoretical at least) willingness to accept that some efforts to realize positive liberty may be necessary to the liberal project of amplifying freedom. John Rawls’ argument that liberal states must prioritize the needs of the least well off is a prime example. Later, Rawls was followed by liberals such as Nussbaum, Sen, and Dworkin, who all argued that a consistent liberalism necessitates greater wealth redistribution.  

Honneth argues that this movement towards emphasizing positive liberty is still incomplete, since it fails to recognize a third kind of liberty: social or civic freedom. Following Hegel’s arguments about the importance of civil society, Honneth contends that liberals insist that the basic structure of liberal institutions must be insulated from democratic deliberation. There are certain things liberal subjects can argue for in the public sphere; others are beyond the pale. But this constitutes a serious limitation on the freedom—and what I will later call the capacity for democratic self-authorship—of citizens. Unless citizens are able to participate in framing and reforming these institutions, they will be unable to feel a sense of authorship of the principles and laws which govern them. This will lead to feelings of powerlessness and alienation from society and its culture, which I have argued in The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism is precisely what happened under neoliberalism. As Honneth nicely puts it in Freedom’s Right:

Justice must entail granting all members of society the opportunity to participate in institutions of recognition. This means that certain normatively substantive and thus ‘ethical’ institutions requiring legal security, state authority and civil support shift to the centre of our idea of social justice.”

Honneth argues that socialism can be understood as an effort to realize civic freedom, though this aspiration has been imperfectly articulated by most historical socialists. In Chapter Two of The Idea of SocialismHonneth criticizes socialists for remaining mired within a 19th century way of thinking.  The early socialists insisted that liberal capitalist societies were insufficiently free since they failed to recognize that full freedom only emerges through “intersubjective relationships” under “certain normative conditions.” Liberals saw freedom as simply the absence of direct coercion from the state, while socialists recognized that to be subjected to laws and regulations from above, which were largely created to benefit the wealthy and entrench their power, posed a very substantial barrier to a fuller kind of emancipation. 

More ominously, it also meant that many socialists showed little concern for political democracy and rights once they achieved power. In the more extreme cases, socialist parties concentrated all political authority in themselves in the effort to establish a classless society. They became tyrannical or at least excessively bureaucratized, leading to the ideal of socialism losing a significant amount of moral legitimacy.

However, while Honneth admires and endorses this ambition, he insists its needs to be seriously updated. Most early socialists writing in the 19th century, witnessing both the grandeur and the inegalitarian consequences of the Industrial Revolution, gestured to the need for a more comprehensive democratization of power in all areas of society in order to achieve freedom. And indeed they could be vital allies in struggles for, say, extending voting rights to workers. But for all practical intents and purposes, they tended to focus myopically on the desire to overcome capitalism and establish a classless society. This meant they paid insufficient attention to the need to establish equality for women, eliminate racism, prioritize LGBTQ rights and so on. More ominously, it also meant that many socialists showed little concern for political democracy and rights once they achieved power. In the more extreme cases, socialist parties concentrated all political authority in themselves in the effort to establish a classless society. They became tyrannical or at least excessively bureaucratized, leading to the ideal of socialism losing a significant amount of moral legitimacy. To restore this, Honneth calls on modern socialists to break out of 19th century ways of thinking about the world and establish ideals which inspire in contemporary societies.

“It is relatively clear today that socialism’s ties to the spirt and social conditions of the Industrial Revolution are presumably the cause for its rapid and silent decline soon after World War II. As soon as social conditions were radically changed by technological advance, structural transformation, and political reforms through the 1960s and 1970s, first generation socialist ideals were bound to become less attractive given that their socio-theoretical content remained anchored in the early 19th century….Only if the original vision of social freedom can be articulated in a theory of society and history that lives up to contemporary reality will it be able to regain of piece of its earlier vitality.” 

In the powerful closing chapters of the book, Honneth calls for a theoretical renewal along two dimensions. First, we need to reconceive of socialism as a kind of “historical experimentalism.” Rather than seeing political power as a means of establishing order, socialists should try to create spaces for individuals to engage in different kinds of experiments in justice. Different kinds of political and moral communities should come to exist within the parameters of the socialist state. Second, Honneth calls for renewing the ideal of a democratic form of life. Sectors of society, which have traditionally been dominated by strict hierarchies, should be opened up for democratic deliberation. An obvious example would, of course, be the workplace. Since peaking in the middle of the 20th century, unions have been losing ground to neoliberal technocracy, and, in many countries, they are but a shadow of their former selves. 


There is much to admire in Honneth’s book. His calls for socialists to be ambitious in theorizing about contemporary society—and not to lean exclusively on 19th century theoretical paradigms—makes a great deal of sense. More importantly, Honneth’s insistence that socialists take democracy far more seriously is well taken. While socialists have always called for the democratization of life, there is no doubt that many critics are skeptical given the authoritarian history of many regimes which claimed to embody its ideals. Moreover, many progressives remain hesitant to embrace socialist movements, seeing them as too focused on economic issues and comparatively uninterested in advancing feminist, anti-racist, and other emancipatory causes. The contemporary slang “brocialist” even mocks this propensity of at least male socialists to often have less than progressive attitudes towards women.

On the other hand, there are several weaknesses to Honneth’s book, which need to be addressed. First, it is a very theoretical reading of the history of socialism. Honneth focuses a great deal of attention on the ideas of figures such as Marx and Proudhon, praising their insights into politics and capitalist markets but criticizing their comparative quietism on other egalitarian issues. While this may be a fair criticism of socialist intellectuals, it isn’t obvious to me that all socialists were as myopically economistic as Honneth suggests. Socialist politicians and activists played an important role in agitating for voting rights, universal healthcare, and movements for racial equality. Looking more closely at this concrete history of achievements (and failures) is exceptionally important. Second, there is a sense in which Honneth overcompensates for the economism of the early socialists by moving too far in the direction of political and cultural analysis. While the desire to realize social freedom through democratizing different sectors of society is obviously not reducible to economic reform, the increasing colonization of all spheres of life by the logic of neoliberal capitalism means a systematic critique of political economy is as vital as ever. Indeed, given the rapid transformations the economy is undergoing every few years, it is crucial to revitalize this theoretical tradition, which after the ascendency of the New Left in the 1980’s was largely ignored in favor of a politics of “militant particularism” as David Harvey put it. 

None of this detracts from the strengths of Honneth’s book, of course. It is consistently readable, intelligent, and even inspiring at points. Anyone interested in understanding the roots and future of the socialist movements currently on the rise would do well to pick it up.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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