John Abromeit: “Right-Wing Populism and the Limits of Normative Critical Theory”

If one wants to address the question of what Frankfurt School Critical Theory can still teach us about the resurgence of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States in recent times, one must call the very concept of the “Frankfurt School” into question and look more closely at how Jürgen Habermas’s efforts to “reconstruct” Critical Theory on normative foundations transformed the intellectual tradition he inherited from Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and the other members of the Institute for Social Research.

In a short essay like this, I can only discuss a few key points. I would like to say a few words about how Habermas’s theory of history – which was originally very similar to that of the early Horkheimer – shifted in the 1960s and 1970s and how his move away from the Freudian-Marxist foundations of early Critical Theory, more generally, has attenuated his ability to grasp the regressive social and irrational political developments we have witnessed in Europe and the U.S. in recent times. Subsequently, I would like to discuss briefly how and why the early model of Critical Theory is still more helpful than normative approaches in grasping and combating right-wing populism. This short essay should be read in conjunction with the piece that appeared in the previous issue of Logos, in which I provided a more detailed analysis of contemporary right-wing populism and authoritarianism in the United States from the standpoint of early Critical Theory.[1]

In his 1962 study, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (STPS), Habermas relied upon an interpretation of modern history as a dialectic of bourgeois society.[2] He examined the origins, development and transformation of the public sphere in Western Europe in relation to the uneven development of modern capitalism in England, France and Germany. During the period of the ascendance of bourgeois society, the public sphere was characterized primarily by its critical and – especially in France – even revolutionary function vis-á-vis the absolutist state and the remnants of feudalism. In English coffee houses, French salons and German universities, discussions of current events, literature, theater and philosophy sharpened the critical intelligence of the rising bourgeoisie and contributed to the creation of new forms of civil society which would assert themselves with increasing vigor and success against the arbitrary decrees, restrictive mercantilist economic policies, artistic and intellectual censorship of absolute monarchies.[3] With the triumph of bourgeois society in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the consolidation of its hegemony throughout Europe in the 19th and 20thcenturies, this critical function of the bourgeois public sphere was – according to Habermas – increasingly undermined, as it was transformed from a forum for active rational debate to a platform for the passive consumption of advertising, political marketing and the “public relations” industry.[4]

If one reads Horkheimer’s lectures and essay from the late 1920s and 1930s with an eye to the interpretation of modern history that underlies them, one finds the same basic model of a dialectic of bourgeois society. This model emerges with particular clarity in a series of unpublished lectures on the history of modern philosophy that Horkheimer delivered in the late 1920s, but it also remains present in many of his published essays in the 1930s. In the lectures Horkheimer delivers a materialist interpretation of the history of modern philosophy as the mediated expression of the uneven development and transformation of bourgeois society.[5] He demonstrates, for example, that the Enlightenment attained a more radical form in France than in Britain, because of the later development of bourgeois society in France and the crucial role of Enlightenment ideas in preparing the way for the French Revolution – a role that was no longer necessary in Britain in the 18th century. Conversely, in Germany, where the development of bourgeois society lagged behind that of France, eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy assumed a more abstract rationalist – even metaphysical – form, which Horkheimer viewed as an expression of the relative weakness of bourgeois society there and its inability seriously to challenge feudal and absolutist institutions. In these lectures Horkheimer also seeks to demonstrate how, after the death of Hegel – whose writings he interprets as a belated expression of the critical tendencies of the Enlightenment – philosophy entered into a period of decline. He interprets the dominant tendencies of late 19th and early 20th-century philosophy – such as positivism, neo-Kantianism and vitalism – as falling behind the insights attained by Hegel. He argues that these insights were preserved outside the sphere of philosophy: theoretically, in Marx’s critique of political economy and, practically, in the new socialist movements. Similarly, in essays published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in the 1930s, such as “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics,” and “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” Horkheimer demonstrated how the critical function of early modern philosophical ideas, such as empiricism and skepticism, was transformed into affirmations of the status quo in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of bourgeois hegemony.[6] If one reads Dialectic of Enlightenment carefully, attentive to the traces of Horkheimer’s early model of Critical Theory that remain there, one can find a similar interpretation of the concept of reason itself, whose critical function is undermined by the dialectic of bourgeois society.[7]

The striking parallel one sees, in other words, between Habermas and Horkheimer’s interpretation of modern history lies in their emphasis on the socially regressive and politically irrational tendencies that gain the upper hand with the establishment of bourgeois hegemony in the nineteenth century. It is precisely these tendencies which are largely lost from view when Habermas moves – in later 1960s and 1970s – toward a new interpretation of modern history as the evolutionary and progressive differentiation of value spheres. Without being able to elaborate my argument in detail here, I would like to advance the claim that this crucial shift in Habermas’s interpretation of modern history should be understood as a response to particular historical conditions in West Germany after World War II, but also as a particular interpretation of the historical roots of National Socialism.

Habermas’s move away from the pronounced Hegelian-Marxist dimensions of his early work, towards a theory of communicative action and an effort to recover the theoretical foundations of modern liberal democracies, parallels the efforts of the Federal Republic of Germany in the postwar decades to achieve a Westanbindung – a regrounding of Germany in the liberal-democratic traditions of Western Europe and the U.S.[8] According to this interpretation, Habermas’s theory from the mid-1960s onwards can be seen as a philosophische Westanbindung – an attempt to carry out a philosophical attachment to the West. The interpretation of German history that lies – implicitly or explicitly – beneath Habermas’s “normative” turn in the 1960s and 1970s is that of the Sonderwegthesis, namely, that fascism took root in Germany – and not in Britain or France – primarily as a result of a modernization deficit in Germany, that is, the failure of the German middle class completely to destroy anachronistic feudal institutions, which prevented the establishment of stable, modern, liberal-democratic political institutions.[9] From this point of view, then, the main task facing the Federal Republic in the post-war period was a Nachholbedarf – a need to make up for this historical deficit in Germany’s liberal-democratic political traditions.

From this point of view, the strong Marxist and socialist traditions in Germany – which had never forgotten about the ways in which social domination reproduced itself within liberal democratic institutions – came increasingly to seem like an anachronistic liability, especially in the optimistic years of the post-war Wirtschaftswunder, when it seemed to many like the earlier crisis tendencies of capitalism had been overcome. The FRG’s rapid economic recovery in the 1950s and 1960s provided the legitimation for the new democratic political institutions, which had been so sorely lacking during the Weimar Republic.

West Germany’s ban on the KPD (German Communist Party) in 1955 and the decisions of the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) in 1959 to eliminate any reference to Marxist theory in their party program, were further expressions of the new “militant democracy” in the Federal Republic.[10] Habermas’s early work, up to and including STPS, was critical of these tendencies to curtail democracy and suppress Marxist theory in the FRG – so much so, that the now much older and more conservative Max Horkheimer viewed Habermas himself as a dangerous Marxist and forced him to leave the Institute in 1959.[11] But by 1968 at the latest, when Habermas notoriously accused Rudi Dutschke and other members of the German Socialist Students Union – which had formed in response to the SPD’s shift to the center in 1959 – of “left fascist” tendencies, it was clear that the center of gravity of Habermas’s theory had shifted and that he was now more concerned about recovering and defending the foundations of liberal-democratic political institutions than highlighting the ways in which social domination reproduced itself within such institutions.[12] Habermas’s turn during this time to Talcott Parson’s whiggish reinterpretation of Max Weber’s theory of modernization would play a key role in the reinterpretation of modern history as an evolutionary differentiation of value spheres, which was fully articulated in his 1980 magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Although Habermas criticized Parsons (and Luhmann) from the standpoint of communicative rationality and communicative action, his evolutionary model of history ultimately remained closer to their structural functionalism than to Marx or the early Horkheimer’s critique of the exploitative, antagonistic and regressive tendencies inherent in modern bourgeois society.[13]

Habermas’s sharp criticisms of postmodern and poststructuralist theory in the 1980s also demonstrated his abiding concern with defending the positive achievements of “modernity.”[14] His 1992 magnum opus on political theory, Between Facts and Norms, could be seen as the culmination of his earlier efforts to reconceptualize and defend the foundations of modern liberal-democratic political institutions.[15]

Habermas’s move away from the historical model of a dialectic of bourgeois society was accompanied by a move away from Freudian psychoanalysis, which had played such a central role in the Critical Theory of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. In the late 1960s Habermas praised Freud as a critic of positivism, who restored an important dimension of cognitive self-reflexivity to the sciences.[16]But his reluctance to move beyond this rather superficial, rationalist interpretation of Freud and to tarry with the full implications psychoanalysis – as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse had done, with their stubborn insistence upon Freud’s drive theory as a materialist corrective to rationalist epistemologies and theories of subjectivity – emerged more clearly in the 1970s, when he began to draw more heavily on Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg’s theories of developmental psychology, which theorized subjective cognitive development in much the same linear, evolutionary terms as Habermas’s objective model of historical modernization.[17] Freud’s focus on the powerful irrational forces at work in human psychic life, and the constant threat of individual and collective regression, were marginalized in Habermas’s normative-rationalist model of subjective development.

In his efforts to place Critical Theory on firm normative foundations, his move away from a Marxist theory of modern capitalism, and his replacement of psychoanalysis with developmental psychology, Habermas has forfeited many of the most important theoretical concepts upon which the early Critical Theorists had relied to grasp and combat fascism, right-wing populism and authoritarianism. In his efforts to recover the positive achievements of “modernity,” Habermas builds critically upon Talcott Parsons and Max Weber’s theory of modernization as the differentiation of value spheres. In his mature work Habermas does criticize the illegitimate incursion of one value sphere into another, and the excessive proliferation of means-ends rationality, which leads to a “colonization of the lifeworld,” but he doesn’t call into question the rationality of modern capitalist society as a whole, insofar as it is guided at the most fundamental level by what he sees as a progressive, evolutionary logic of social differentiation and a decentering of subjective worldviews. He views our task as the continuation and “completion” of this basically benevolent “project of modernity”…

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Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock holds a Masters Degree in Sociology and teaches at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research interests include critical theory, infectious disease, and discourse analysis; as well as epistemology, bureaucracy, age norms, and film and media studies. His recent work has appeared in Social Theory & Health.
Jeremiah Morelock

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