Theater of Cruelty

Easy socialism in a time of capitalism

The Idea of ​​Socialism
Forfatter: Axel Honneth
Forlag: Polity Books
There is still a lot of gold in socialism, says philosopher Axel Honneth, who still does not hesitate to discard the left-wing revolutionary romance. 


Socialism has earned an undeserved reputation, says Axel Honneth, who belongs to the fourth generation of Frankfurt philosophers. In this little book – originally a lecture series – Honneth draws on a clear-cut and simple variant of the socialist tradition. It may not be to everyone's taste, since the radical romance has been purged, but for those who are concerned with the viability and relevance of socialism, it is required reading.

Greater inequality. The reason for the scourge of socialism today is unsuccessful attempts to realize it throughout history, the German philosopher points out. These are hardly views that will arouse attention, but it does not hurt to show that even though practice (history) shadows theory, it does not necessarily mean that theory was wrong in the first place. In addition, he cites the much-talked about normalization of capitalism as a universal solution, as Francis Fukuyama, in a herostratic way, before him in The End of History and the Last Man. Honneth does not claim that it is impossible to think past the liberal capitalist model, but shows how it is still a horizon from which we have difficulty detaching.

Honneth focuses on socialism's lack of contact with people's actual desires and ideology's poor understanding of history.

The problem is simply that both political and social reality have become so complex that it is hard to spot social contradictions that can anchor the utopian idea in an alternative: classes are less clearly defined, and oppression is no longer something booklets by stable social groups. But the inequalities are still here, yes, in fact they are greater today than they have been in 40 years. So, "why do socialist visions no longer have the same ability to convince the misguided that joint efforts can actually change 'the inevitable'?" The author asks. This is undoubtedly a good question.

Failed class consciousness. And Honneth has the answers up her sleeve, at least a good start. He deals with the chapters in the history of socialism in turn and picks the ideology apart. He shows where it works and what does not, and does not hesitate to focus on the two greatest weaknesses of early socialist theory, namely its lack of contact with the actual existing wants and needs of the population and its understanding of the course of history. Both are, quite obviously, outdated mindsets. First, says Honneth, it is difficult to establish a credible theory of change when the basis of social reality is at best deficient. That there is a proletarian consciousness or a desire on the part of the proletariat for a revolution and a classless society was not something Saint-Simon, Marx and Proudhon bothered to check before they sat down and formulated their theses, says Honneth. "In both early and late writings, Marx assumes that the aims of his theory are shared by an already existing collective subject in social reality – a subject who, despite all the differences between the concrete members of the group, has a common interest in revolution."

Pragmatism. Here, both Marx and others are on a wild goose chase, Honneth believes, probably rightly so. This revolutionary romance has more to do with theoretical fantasies than empirical grounding, although any radical overthrow of the existing is always a possibility. But then hardly in the variant Marx and his companions take for granted with the greatest obviousness. The worst thing about this is that it creates a blindness to the various possibilities Secondly, solutions can offer, as the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey – to whom Honneth keeps coming back – points out.

If in theory you have already decided what happens in social reality, it goes without saying that maps and terrain do not match when you move out into the field. Here, in fact, history can also serve as a lesson for Marxists with their heads in the cloud.

Distorted understanding of history. Beyond the class fantasies, understanding historical history is also completely hopeless, Honneth believes. Once it has been decided that the world will develop towards a society beyond capitalism, as by an iron law, the actual development will once again turn out to falsify the assumptions. Honneth again turns to Dewey to illustrate that entrenched concepts of historical development are not very appropriate if one has decided to change history in favor of the weakest. Experimentation with an understanding of both class and development is necessary for us to be able to operate with a reasonably meaningful concept of socialism.

This is hardly surprising for those with a penchant for left-wing thinking, but when Honneth moves towards the center both economically and politically, the wishful thinking will probably appear a little less red and appealing for some. But realism and pragmatism are the grip Honneth prefers: there is no reason to hold on to ideas of social change if they are unable to intervene in the present reality. I think we should give him the right to that.

We should establish a model where different forms of society can exist side by side, where socialism can exist within capitalism.

The necessity of solidarity. Where socialism still has something essential to offer us is in its idea of ​​brotherhood and solidarity. In a capitalist economy where self-interest dominates, there is little room for the recognition of others' wishes and needs for life (not just the economy). But, says Honneth with Marx, it is in society as in love: If you are not able to take into account your partner's needs, marriage will quickly squeak in the joints. The idea that the market's enrichment of a few will lead to a corresponding increase in the benefits for the community is a neoliberal delusion, says Honneth, who joins a growing number of economists who are critical of the ideology that characterizes large parts of the right, also in Norway .

The idea that privatization of the public sector should lead to a more optimal outcome for civil society should, at most levels, be time to discard. The fact that rights in the private sector also get worse with, among other things, an increase in temporary employment does not make the idea of ​​brotherhood stronger, so to speak.

«Alcove» socialism. The point, Honneth believes, is that we can actually operate with a reasonably free market, but that we must avoid "supplements" that allow for unnecessary enrichment of individuals and companies. The recognition of different types of economies – let's say cooperatives and classical corporations – should also be able to coexist if they recognize each other's needs and neutralize the inequalities inherent in the neoliberal variant of capitalism. The market is not in itself something we must overcome through a centralized management, says the German thinker: What we should instead try to establish is a model where different forms of society can exist side by side. This is how socialism can exist within capitalism. Recognition and solidarity are thus the key to a socialist capitalism.

Not entirely unlike the mixed economy of the welfare state that we have traditionally had in this country, but which now, unfortunately, is being diluted with the neoliberal thinking of the incumbent government. (But maybe we will return to where we were after the next election?) Honneth's renovated socialism can probably work in that case, even if for some it probably feels like non-alcoholic beer when they really want a real root soak.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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