the idea of socialism book review – axel honneth

Axel Honneth Socialism – review and critical analysis

In The Idea of Socialism, Honneth addresses an important problem, but fails, in my opinion, to find the answer.

The problem – there is increasing discontent with some aspects of Capitalism – why isn’t Socialism ‘on the table’ as an alternative

The problem that needs to be explained, according to Honneth, is that Socialism, which has traditionally been seen as an alternative to Capitalism is no longer on the table as an option even as discontent with some of the impacts of Capitalism have got worse. Why is this, and what can be done to put it back on the table?

As recently as a century ago, socialism was such a powerful movement that there was hardly any great social theorist who did not see the need to address it in detail. Today, in sharp contrast, socialism is largely ignored in social theory and is treated as an idea that has outlived its day. And this at a time when the need for socialism is perhaps as great as ever – discontent with the socio-economic state of affairs is widespread, but without socialism, the outrage seems to lack direction.

The explanation: Socialism was developed at an earlier time, and some of it’s core ideas are no longer relevant

Honneth’s primary argument is that Socialism was initially developed in a different time. Times have changed, but socialism hasn’t adapted and consequently it has become increasingly irrelevant. To make it more relevant it needs to be refreshed – a different approach is needed.

Because of it’s historic roots, Socialism today makes two mistakes: firstly it treats the collectivisation of the means of production almost as an end in itself, and secondly it ignores the possibility of gradual change through the existing system bringing about the required results.

Honneth posits that the idea of socialism is an intellectual product of capitalist industrialization. It originated as a response to the ideas of the French Revolution when it became apparent to a group of thinkers that the demands for freedom, equality and fraternity remained unfulfilled promises for large parts of the population – specifically, that freedom for the mass of the population was constrained by their economic condition.  Unlike in Liberal thought where people are free if there is a legal framework that enables then to pursue their own ends provided they don’t interfere with the right of others to enjoy the same right, socialists argue that this freedom is simply mutual affirmation of their respective right to plunder each other. True freedom is only achievable if there is a community of solidarity – or all activity is directed to a shared goal. Human beings cannot realize their individual freedom in the matters most important to them on their own. The members of society must not only act with each other, but also for each other, for this is the only way they can satisfy their shared needs freely.

The various ‘socialist currents’ all agreed that the way to put an end to the misery of the working masses was to reorganize the economic sphere, subjecting economic activities for the greater social will. However, Honneth believes that there has been a mistaken emphasis on the economic sphere at the expense of others – the collectivisation of the means of production should always has been seen as a means to an end – the end being an entirely different set of moral demands – rather than an end in itself.

And in the context of the period after the Year of Revolutions, 1848 to the First World War – with revolution seeming such an imminent possibility – socialists failed to consider any alternative to revolution. The possibility of gradual evolutionary change bringing the required results was ignored. For Marx, socialism was inevitable for two reasons (1) the motor of social development is class conflict and this leads, at each stage, to the interests of the larger, but previously excluded, class prevailing, and (2) technological advances requiring new organization of production..

The solution: drop the outdated aspects of Socialism and replace them with more contemporary elements.

Essentially, Honneth argues that Socialism should shift it’s focus from the economic sphere to the political and community spheres, and instead of revolution should channel it’s energies into ‘experimentation’ within the existing order. Precisely what this looks like is a little sketchy.

Neilsonparc’s response to Axel Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism

Firstly on the reasons Socialism isn’t ‘on the table’ any more. Rather than the core ideas losing relevance – Liberalism was also developed in much the same period, and the ideas of Liberalism don’t appear to be losing relevance for their adherents – we should be looking for other reasons. The people that benefit from the Capitalist order have a great deal to protect, they have the means to protect it, and they are smart enough to realise that they need to invest some of their resources to protect it. The enemy isn’t passive, but is rather a very active agent that has a strong incentive to remove Socialism from the table, and has the resources to do so.

When the Reagan and Thatcher arms race eventually bankrupted the Soviet economy, and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Capitalist media made hay. Rather than forced economic collapse of a catch up country with a weak economy under siege, the collapse has been portrayed as the collapse of an idea – ‘the collapse of Communism’ – the idea being that Communism was tried and it very publicly failed. Let’s close that book and move on. The End of History. Liberalism won. This isn’t a naive misunderstanding of the true situation, but a politically motivated story concocted by, and supported by, the elites of the west and their media.

The second reason Socialism isn’t on the table any more is the increasing dominance of the capitalist media, and the increasing and endless ‘circuses’ they provide. There are no independent voices in the provision of ‘news’, there is no mass culture of analysis and debate – the conversation is now around sport, entertainment, business and social media.

Secondly, removing the essence of Socialism in order to revive it isn’t actually reviving it. That’s akin to reviving Christianity by adding in some golden calves. Rather than being an anachronistic obsession, common ownership and control of the means of production is the essence of the whole Socialist project. It is the limited ownership and control of the means of production that is the cause of the increasing concentration of wealth in society, the damage to the environment from production of endless planned obsolescence, and the alienation of labour. That’s the problem.

Working within the system to tweak, or experiment, will only have one outcome. The existing problem will remain. It may feel better, but the people that benefit from the existing status quo will continue to benefit from the status quo – they control the political system through their control of the media, and even if this control slips – as per Brexit and Trump – they are not going to give these benefits up through the political system.

The verdict: 5/10 – an interesting read, but an unconvincing argument.