Continuities und Discontinuites in Habermas’s Relation to Historical Materialism
by William Outhwaite
The original version of this article was written for a conference in Wuppertal in 2012 on ‘Habermas und der Historische Materialismus’. Habermas, like Bourdieu, is interchangeably described as a philosopher or a sociologist (or, as on the conference press release, a social philosopher). The late Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) wrote shortly before his death that ‘for Habermas sociology was, I believe, always one of a number of anchors in the world of science. He was and remained a philosopher’ (Dahrendorf 2008: 120). There is a similar uncertainty about his relationship to Marxist theory, with some people confidently calling him a (neo-)Marxist and others equally emphatic that he was never really a Marxist. Hence the interest in the conference topic. As the press release notes, Habermas accepted the invitation with mixed feelings (he said ironically in response to my paper that he was experiencing his own historicisation), but he rose to the occasion and joined energetically in the conference debates.
People often identify with Marxism in their youth but then gradually distance themselves from it. This is not, I think, the case with Habermas. Already in Theory and Practice (1963) he was a critical friend of historical materialism, and he has remained so, sometimes friendlier, sometimes more critical. A more orthodox Marxist would not have dealt so seriously and evenhandedly in 1960 with ‘four facts against Marx’. These contemporary facts in the developed capitalist countries, he wrote, (interpenetration of state and society, rising living standards, fragmentation or even dissolution of the Western proletariat, and the soviet dictatorship) ‘..form an insurmountable barrier to the theoretical reception of Marxism…’ (Habermas 1963: 166; tr. 198), and also to the ‘silent orthodoxy’ (he was probably thinking of Adorno): ‘…whose categories reveal themselves in their application to cultural criticism, without being identified as such’ (Habermas 1963: 170; tr. 203). Yet Marxism should still be taken seriously as a ‘philosophy of history with an political intent’ and not dissolved into specialised disciplines, as in the case of Schumpeter (and perhaps also Habermas’ friend and former colleague Ralf Dahrendorf, whose Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959) had attempted to do this).
Even earlier, in 1955, Habermas had demonstrated in a review article a comprehensive knowledge of the contemporary literature on Marx. Here one finds motifs which play an important role in his later discussions of Marx. First a critique of approaches which ‘…place Marx very close, too close, to Hegel’ (Habermas, 1970: 78). Then the defence of Marx against scurrilous and unserious criticism. At the same time Habermas stresses the
serious question…how a humanistic critique of ideology [this is also a central element in what Habermas takes from Marx] could degenerate into an institutionalised ideology of inhumanity. I suspect that Marx’s misunderstanding of technology, although he contributed more to its understanding than anyone, plays an important role in this connection. (Habermas, 1970: 80)
A little later, in 1958, Habermas emphasised, in an encyclopedia article on philosophical anthropology, the innovative character of Marxism in opposition to an ‘…Idealism which could only subordinate the really anthropological problematic to the fundamental logic of a transcendental consciousness or of an absolute spirit.’ (Habermas, 1970: 167)
Habermas ends the article with a reference to the ‘link between anthropology and the theory of society’, which Marcuse and others in the USA were trying to establish via psychoanalysis (Habermas, 1970: 180). In the same year, 1958, as he reported in an interview in 1981, he had first come to take Marx seriously as an economic thinker and, under Adorno’s influence, ceased to read Marx in anthropological terms.
How far does Habermas still see Marxism in this way? Tom Rockmore (1999) has claimed, perhaps even more strongly than in his book of 1989, that Habermas has distanced himself from it:
Habermas, who breaks with Marx to avoid ideological distortion in claims to know, reconceives the subject as independent of context. As a result, he retreats back behind Hegel, for whom the subject of knowledge is a real human being, to a quasi-Kantian conception of subjectivity with Piercean elements. (Rockmore 1999: 284)
It is certainly true that Habermas’s early differentiation between work and interaction was motivated in part by his criticism of marxist reductionism and a simplistic base/superstructure model. He may also have been inflenced by Adornos boutade that Marx represented the whole world as a factory. I would however tend to see in Habermas something more like a permanent balancing-act between Kantian, Hegelian and Marxist principles and motifs. Habermas has written that we remain philosophically the contemporaries of the young Hegelians. His own thought can be seen to steer a course between the twin poles of Kant and Hegel, constantly pursuing abstract systems of argumentation of a recognizably Kantian kind while remaining sensitive to the Hegelian or (sociological) reminder that formal systems of reasoning exist in a social and historical context.
It may be that there is something like a bell curve in Habermas’s relation to historical materialism. Marxist motifs are most prominent in the 1970s, when on the one hand he reformulates the Marxist conception of crisis and, on the other, and to some extent in the same book, Legitimation Crisis (1973), formulates the complementary project, carried through in more detail in The Reconstruction of Historical Materialism (1976) and Theory of Communicative Action (1981), of setting a model of moral development alongside the Marxist model of the development of the productive forces.
Matthew Specter (2010: 90) in his ‘intellectual biography’ of Habermas has stressed the importance of the question of technology and technocracy.
The agenda he set as co-director of the Max Planck Institute extended his preoccupation of the late 1960s with the significance of science and technology for Marxist theory.
In Specter’s analysis, Habermas’s early critique of technocracy also shapes the direction of his later work: the watershed is the student movement’s conception of technology, strongly influenced by Herbert Marcuse. Rather like Max Weber in 1918-1919, Habermas wanted to introduce more realism and responsibility into the debate.
…Habermas fell back on Weber’s distinction between aesthetic-expressive and purposive-rational action, arguing that student tactics blurred this essential difference to disastrous effect. He viewed Marcuse’s technological utopianism, increasingly popular with the students, through a similar Weberian lens: Neither nature nor science could be reenchanted. Striking, however, is the equal attention Habermas paid to the weaknesses of the Weberian theory of modernity as rationalization. (Specter 2010: 122)
Specter’s argument suggests that we should pay particular attention to two texts: first, Marcuse’s critique of Weber at the 1964 meeting of the German Sociological Association (Marcuse, 1965), and secondly the criticism of Marcuse in the Festschrift edited by Habermas in 1968, Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse, and in the long title essay (which Habermas had originally intended for the Festschrift) in Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie.
In his introduction to the Festschrift Habermas presents without comment Marcuse’s thesis that technology has become the primary productive force‚ with the potential to enable a ‘peaceful and satisfied existence’, but also‚ a new form of ideology which legitimates administrative force cut off from the masses’ (Habermas 1968: 14-15). Claus Offe (1968: 87-8) however suggests that Marcuse’s stress on technology, shared with conservative German sociologists of the period, underestimates the role of ‘socially interpreted interestsc.
In ‘Technology and Science as ‘‘Ideology’’’, however, Habermas ( 1971: 90) begins with a critique of Marcuse:
The difficulty, which Marcuse has only obscured with the notion of the political content of technical reason, is to determine in a categorially precise manner the meaning of the expansion of the rational form of science and technology…I believe that neither Weber nor Marcuse has satisfactorily accounted for it. Therefore I should like to attempt to reformulate Weber’s concept of rationalization in another system of reference…
The rest is history: more precisely, the history of the Reconstruction of Historical Materialism and to a large extent also of the second volume of the Theory of Communicative Action, which Habermas anticipates in the rest of the essay. In modernity
… traditional structures are increasingly subordinated to conditions of instrumental or strategic rationality…Thus arises the substructure of a society under the compulsion of modernization (Habermas  1971: 98) .
By the time he restates this analysis in Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas has completed a long march through universal pragmatics and also the reworking of Marxist crisis theory in Legitimation Crisis.
Habermas’s model of normative evolution can usefully be compared with earlier attempts by Kantian or neo-Kantian Marxists. Whereas they aimed to augment Marxism with moral elements, Habermas is concerned with a more Hegelian project of incorporating normative learning processes as an important part of a reformulated historical materialism. As he put it in a written interview in 1984 with Perry Anderson und Peter Dews, ‘Having rejected the orthodoxy of the philosophy of history, I had no wish to lapse back either into ethical socialism, or into scientism…’ (Dews 1986: 151; 1992: 149). The model, if there is one, is then rather the Austromarxists and Kautsky (Cf. Lukes 1985: 14-19). In the same interview he continues:
So you can see that from the outset my theoretical interests have been consistently determined by those philosophical and socio-theoretical problems which arise out of the movement of thought from Kant through to Marx. My intentions were given their stamp by Western Marxism in the mid-fifties, through a coming-to-terms with Lukács, Korsch and Bloch, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and of course with Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Everything else which I have made my own has only acquired its significance in connection with the project of a renewal of the theory of society grounded in this tradition.
There may however be a certain instability in Habermas’s reconstruction of historical materialism. On the one hand, Habermas writes‚ (1979: 98): ‘…culture remains a superstructural phenomenon, even if it does seem to play a more prominent role in the transition to new developmental levels than many Marxists have heretofore supposed.’
On the other hand he gives a certain primacy to normative development. Habermas had earlier summarised his argument in the ‘Reconstruction of Historical Materialism’ (1979: 147), that:
…knowledge…can be implemented to develop the forces of production only when the evolutionary step to a new institutional framework and a new form of social integration has been taken.
It remains an open question, how this step is taken. The descriptive answer of historical materialism is: through social conflict, struggle, social movements, and political confrontations…But only an analytic answer can explain why a society takes an evolutionary step and how we are to understand that social struggles under certain conditions lead to a new form of social integration. I would like to to propose the following answer: the species learns not only in the dimension of technically useful knowledge decisive for the development of productive forces, but also in the dimension of moral-practical consciousness decisive for the structures of interaction. The rules of communicative action do develop in reaction to changes in the domain of instrumental and strategic action; but in doing so they follow their own logic.
This anticipatory reference to the later theory of communicative action seems to indicate continuity and suggests thät Habermas did not kick away his reconstruction of historical materialism like Wittgenstein’s step-ladder. A more thorough textual analysis would be too much here; instead I would like to raise two questions of principle, the first concerned with the reconstruction of historical materialism and the second the theory of communicative action.
The first question turns around concepts such as evolutionary learning, system problems, etc. If there are such things as societal system problems, this says little about whether or how they are resolved. The familar criticism of functionalism may still be relevant here, even if the second volume of Theory of Communicative Action is labelled a ‘critique of functionalist reason’. Habermas would perhaps reply that the long quotation which I just gave provides the answer, but the prestructuring of what Habemas calls the ‘analytic question’ seems to prejudge the ‘descriptive’ answer.
The second question is whether the theory of communicative action is in a position to replace historical materialism or merely to complement it. To set it in parallel with historical materialism, as the quotation above indicates, seems to me rather a category mistake. Even if historical materialism is wholly untenable, it at least stakes out a space which could be filled more effectively. The theory of communicative action can hardly aspire to such a universal role. (See, for example, Axel Honneth’s insistence that the theory of communicative action needs to be complemented with a Foucauldian analysis of power, as well as with a more prominent theoretical and not just political approach to concrete social conflicts.) In other words, the theory of communicative action can be only one component, even if a very important one, of a critical social theory.
Brunkhorst, H., Kreide, R., Lafont, C. (eds) (2009) Habermas-Handbuch. Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler.
Cordero, Rodrigo (2014) ‘Crisis and critique in Jürgen Habermas’s social theory’,
European Journal of Social Theory, published online 23 January 2014.
Dahrendorf, Ralf (2008) ‚Lord Ralf Dahrendorf: Seit Jahrzehnten Freund und Kontrahent.‘ In Michael Funken (ed.): Über Habermas. Gespräche mit Zeitgenossen. Darmstadt: Primus, 119-129.
Habermas, Jürgen (ed. Peter Dews) (1986) Autonomy and Solidarity. London: Verso. 2nd edition 1992.
Habermas, Jürgen, ‘Marx in Perspektiven’, Merkur, 9, 1955: 1180ff. Also in Habermas, Arbeit, Erkenntnis, Fortschritt. Aufsätze 1954-1970. Amsterdam: de Munter, 1970.
Habermas, Jürgen, Theorie und Praxis, Neuwied/Berlin, Luchterhand, 1963. Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Polity, 1986.
Habermas, Jürgen (1968) Technologie und Wissenschaft als Ideologie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Toward a Rational Society, Cambridge: Polity, 1986.
Habermas, Jürgen (ed.) (1968) Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, Jürgen (1976) Zur Rekonstruktion des historischen Materialismus.Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Communication and the Evolution of Society, Boston: Beacon, 1979.
Honneth, Axel, and Joas, Hans, Social Action and Human Nature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988. First published 1980.
Honneth, Axel, and Joas, Hans (eds), Communicative Action, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.
Lukes, Steven (1985) Marxism and Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Marcuse, Herbert (1941) ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology’, in A. Arato und E. Gebhart (eds.), The Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum), 1982.
Marcuse, Herbert (1965) ‘Industrialization and Capitalism‘, New Left Review I/30 (March/April).
Rockmore, Tom, Habermas on Historical Materialism, Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Rockmore, Tom, ‘Habermas, Nietzsche, and Cognitive Perspective’, in Babette E. Babich (ed), Nietzsche, Theories of Knowledge, and Critical Theory: Nietzsche and the Sciences, Kluver, 1999, pp. 281-288.
Specter, Matthew (2010) Habermas. An Intellectual Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press.
The conference volume, including Habermas’s comments on the papers and edited by Smail Rapic, is forthcoming later this autumn: http://www.verlag-alber.de/vorschau/details_html?k_tnr=48566&k_onl_struktur=712809
I am grateful to Simon Susen for his comments on the original version.
 Kulturkritik has of course a broader sense than cultural criticism in English.
 See Rockmore, 1989: 185 n.42.
 On technology, see below.
 ‘Dialektik der Rationalisierung’, translated in Dews 1992. It is worth noting however that Honneth and Hans Joas (1980; 1991) developed their account of critical theory with substantial reference to philosophical anthropology.
 Martin Hartmann (2010: 321) also writes of a ‚fundamental repudiation of an important marxist doctrine’, which is however partially compensated in Habermas’s Reconstruction of Historical Materialism (1976) and in his later writings.
 As Hauke Brunkhorst (2009: 219) puts it, ‘…the critical theory of society…must emerge out of what exists and out of its own autonomous development, in other words, thinking with Hegel against Hegel, must renew Kant’s radical, normative universalism’.
 This anticipates Axel Honneth’s later Critique of Power and his criticism of the first generation of the Frankfurt School.
 Rodrigo Cordero (2014: 6) provides a very illuminating analysis of Habermas’s concept of crisis in relation to communication.
 As Hartmann notes, Habermas retains in the Theory of Communicative Action the evolutionary model of the development of society and the concepts of base and superstructure.
 Habermas has of course always been a very close observer of the political scene, but he has always also differentiated between his political and theoretical writing.
William Outhwaite is Professor of Sociology, Newcastle University
His TCS review of The Crisis of the European Union: A Response by Jürgen Habermas is available here: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/30/3/128.extract
Readers may also be interested in the recent TCS article b Kyung-Man Kim, ‘Beyond Justification: Habermas, Rorty and the Politics of Cultural Change’, available here: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/23/0263276414533999.abstract