Platform Socialism?

By Nicholls, Julia | Renewal, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Platform Socialism?


Nicholls, Julia, Renewal


Axel Honneth, The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, trans. J. Ganahl, Cambridge: Polity, 2017.

The literary market has recently been saturated with work on inequality. Reflecting increasing--and increasingly vocal--social and political alarm about the increasingly unequal state of society, a wave of academic books, including Tony Atkinson's Inequality: What Can Be Done? (reviewed in this issue), Thomas Piketty's Capital and Pierre Rosanvallon's Society of Equals have explored the phenomenon of contemporary inequality, its historical roots, and how we might go about addressing the problem.

In The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal (Polity, 2017), Axel Honneth suggests that the answer might be found in a once-familiar idea: socialism. Socialism, Honneth argues, has been the most potent and universal political call to arms for the last 150 years, functioning as a powerful antidote to the progress of capitalism. Yet today, contemporary protesters against capitalist excesses are far less likely to identify themselves as socialists. Why, in other words, do 'visions of socialism no longer have the power to convince'? (5). In this newly-translated extended essay, Honneth offers an explanation for contemporary socialism's problems and lays the groundwork for theorising a way out of them.

Originally delivered as a series of lectures, The Idea of Socialism uses and builds upon Honneth's previous interventions in critical theory. Specifically, it is an extension of his latest major work, the 2014 Freedom' s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (Columbia), in which he elaborated a theory of justice that was grounded in institutions and practices as well as abstract principles. In this book Honneth seeks to do the same for socialism, articulating a theory of socialism that is relevant to contemporary society without being defined by this context.

Before elaborating the future of socialism, Honneth provides us with a brief account of its past. Socialism, he writes, originated as a response to the perception that liberal politicians and philosophers had not fulfilled the promises of the French Revolution. By interpreting liberty in purely individualistic terms, they gave free reign to market capitalism, transforming the post-Revolutionary social order into a society of competitors (13). In opposition to this, the early socialists posited a theory of 'social freedom', which sought to reconcile the liberal conception of freedom with solidarity by arguing that 'human beings cannot realise their individual freedom in the matters most important to them on their own' (27).

While these early socialists had many disagreements, Honneth claims, all agreed on three fundamental principles. First, that socialism's primary goal was the destruction or radical reform of the capitalist market economy, for only then could true solidarity be created (30). Second, that socialism was the articulation of ideas and wishes that were already immanent within the proletariat. Socialists, in other words, were merely giving voice to the working class's desires (30). Third, they all agreed that their ideas were 'historically necessary' to a certain degree (30; 46). This final conviction enabled nineteenth-century socialists to bypass politics and intermediary measures altogether: since 'the revolution was inevitable in the near future, they saw no cognitive or political benefit in attempts at gradual change in the present' (26).

These three fundamental beliefs were, Honneth argues, both a blessing and a curse for later socialists. On the one hand, they were both comforting and compelling, elevating socialism above other normative theories by positioning it as the authentic voice of a large, ignored, pre-existing class and declaring its triumph an historical inevitability. On the other, the very attributes that made socialism so compelling were historically specific to nineteenth-century industrial Europe. …

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