The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal
Axel Honneth (Goethe University Frankfurt)
Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017, x + 145 pp.
Faced with the threat of mass extinction, outraged by financial oligarchs' global larceny, and terrified by growing levels of inequality and precarisation, the world's masses seem unable to unite under the banner of "socialism" and aspire to radical international rejuvenation (vii). Quite the opposite, "the ethical force of the future" appears to be the long-mistreated "religion" of our forefathers, while "socialism is regarded as a creature of the past" (viiviii). What happened? And can socialism ever regain some of its lost clout?
Honneth's book aims at answering these two interrogatives. In order to address the former, Honneth offers a concise and well-informed account of the history of socialism (chapters I & II). To address the latter, he identifies and discusses some possible "paths of renewal" (chapters III & IV), which are explicitly reminiscent of the libertarian socialist tradition of "Socialisme ou barbarie" and "Cornelius Castoriadis" in particular (52). Honneth's insights start already in the book's introduction, however, in which he argues that the peculiar "disconnect between" 21st-century people's "outrage" and their "vision of a better world" could be the result of three main factors (1): "the collapse of communist regimes in 1989", which weakened the notion of a viable "alternative to capitalism" (2); the cultural influence of "postmodernism", which rejects the linear and progressive interpretation of history fuelling much of socialism's appeal (2); and the quasi-mystical "[r]eification ... of capitalism" into the given structure of the world: "a fetishistic conception of social relations." (5)
As regards the history of socialism (chapters I & II), the little-known roots of the term itself belong to "Catholic theologians" of the 18 th century, who "referred to a tendency in the works of Grotius and Pufendorf" to assume that "the legal order of society should be founded on the human need for 'sociality' rather than divine revelation." (6) Better known is the use of this term by 19th-century Owenites "in England and the Fourierists in France", who were horrified by "the misery of the working masses" under the prevailing "economic sphere", which had clearly betrayed the melioristic aspirations of "the French Revolution" (7-9). Within the revolutionary motto, "liberty" and...