Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal by Axel Honneth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did a bit of research, so I can say with some certainty that this book isn't a satire or a parody. Axel Honneth is a senior philosophy professor and he is seriously trying to guide the theory of socialism out of the blind alley where it was led by the misguided assumptions of its 19th Century founders and their unquestioning 20th Century acolytes.

To put it in layman's terms, which Prof Honneth most certainly hasn't, the problem is that early socialists were fixated on the economic sphere and the proletariat's revolutionary reaction to it in the context of the nation state. Infuriatingly, the nation state has become diluted (Brexit notwithstanding), the proletariat has failed to adopt a revolutionary consciousness and become diluted as the economy becomes post-industrial, while capitalism has refused to collapse under its own contradictions. One of the best things about the book is how Honneth objectively picks apart the muddled and circular thinking of dogmatic socialists in a politically neutral way.

The solution, which Honneth finally gets round to after lengthy discussion of the philosophical roots of the the movement, is for society to be controlled democratically, with its various elements (not just the industrial proletariat) co-operating through ill-defined communication structures, based on the recognition of common needs rather than individual wants. For this to happen, the present power structures must be dismantled by means unspecified, while stronger personalities within the new order must restrain themselves from building a new power structure for their own selfish benefit.

As Honneth concludes, in the very last sentence of the book:
Only if all members of society can satisfy the needs they share with all others – physical and emotional intimacy, economic independence and political self-determination – by relying on the sympathy and support of their partners in interaction will our society have become social in the full sense of the term.
With such a naïve vision, it's little surprise that Honneth's book is a fundamental contradiction of itself. Socialism at its heart is a society run by the masses, for the masses. Yet Honneth's writing style shows that he is wedded to the idea of socialism as the preserve of an intellectual elite. The language of the book – and this cannot simply be the whim of his translator – makes every effort to be obscure and even intimidating.

For instance, on page 55 he states: "With a bit of goodwill, we could say that the first socialists understood…" Only he doesn't say that. He says: "With a bit of hermeneutic goodwill…" This isn't a one-off. At every opportunity, Honneth uses words designed to intimidate and exclude. The message is clear: his socialism is the preserve of an intellectual elite. You need a degree in politics. A degree in English won't do: I know because I've got one, and I can barely understand it.

Situations are frequently "immanent" (a word used almost exclusively by left-wing intellectuals). The word "normative" appears on almost every page (I'm not exaggerating). Social structure has to be "concretized". The existence of resistance movements is "apodictically presupposed". The operating segments of society make up not just a whole, but a "superordinate whole", while their interests are not just intertwined but "intersubjectively intertwined". If his argument is ever in danger of making its point clearly, Honneth invariably inserts a mysterious, convoluted, polysyllabic and usually unnecessary word or phrase to throw the reader off the scent.

As for the proletariat – y'know, the ones who are supposed to not only benefit but actually be in charge – the clear message is that socialism isn't for you. It's ours. Leave it to your betters. You could call Honneth's vision a kind of aristocratic socialism. He recognises that socialism has lost its way, but the destination remains the same: the movement must continue the long march up its own backside.

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