Redemption Through Discourse?

by cominsitu

habermas

by Peter Osborne (2017)

‘After us, strictly speaking, there will be nothing’, Theodor Adorno wrote to Max Horkheimer on 17 August 1954, from the Hotel Reber au Lac in Locarno, where he was spending his summer vacation.[1] It was less than a year since Adorno had taken up a permanent professorship at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt—a position to which he was entitled under the terms of the law governing compensation for acts of National Socialist injustice. The occasion for his pathos was the fact that the young Ralf Dahrendorf—only recently appointed to the Institute for Social Research to oversee a project on the political attitudes of students—had resigned to take up a position in Saarbrücken. Dahrendorf was a significant loss, not only for his academic abilities and interests (he had completed his PhD at Hamburg on Marx’s theory of justice), but also for his anti-fascist pedigree. The son of a Social Democrat deputy in the pre-1933 Reichstag imprisoned towards the end of the war as an underground agitator, Dahrendorf had himself been arrested in late 1944, aged 15, for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. He was sent to a concentration camp in Poland. Almost a decade after the war’s end, finding such suitable candidates for a junior position in the Institute was proving difficult.

Eighteen months later, Adorno finally secured a replacement for Dahrendorf: Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was the same age as Dahrendorf, but his family background could not have been more different. As his biographer, Stefan Müller-Doohm, records, his father, Ernst, was the Protestant manager of the local Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Gummersbach in northern Rhineland. A national conservative in political orientation, he had joined the Nazi Party in spring 1933, after an election in which it received almost 50 per cent of the vote in the town, and became the NSDAP’s economic adviser for the county. Gummersbach became the seat of the regional headquarters of the Nazi Party, and by 1934 anti-Jewish activities and arrests in the town had begun, intensifying after the pogroms of November 1938. Despite his age (48 in 1939), Habermas’s father volunteered for military service in the Wehrmacht, having taken part in military exercises between 1933 and 1937. During the war, he served in Brest, the largest German submarine base on the Atlantic, as head of the civil administration, with the rank of Captain, later Major.

As a child, Jürgen Habermas was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the section of the Hitler Youth for boys aged 10 to 14 (this was required by law—Dahrendorf was also a member), then the Hitler Youth itself. In August 1944, aged 15, we can see him in a photograph, stern-faced in garlanded uniform, marching in a parade of Hitler Youth shortly to be deployed to the Siegfried Line during the final mobilization. However, he managed to avoid the deployment and then, in February 1945, by chance it seems, his call-up papers for the Wehrmacht. The Americans arrived in the town on 11 April. His father returned later, having been in various prisoner-of-war camps in the USA, categorized as a ‘passive follower’ (Mitläufer) of Nazism, the second lowest of the Allies’ five categories of political involvement, denoting an absence of active collaboration. This allowed him to resume his previous job, after a period of enforced waiting, prior to the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. The smooth process of ‘rehabilitation’ in postwar Germany, which would come to trouble Adorno, Habermas and Hannah Arendt alike, appears in this case also to have been without hindrance.

Unsurprisingly, given this background, Habermas’s early academic experience was almost as distant from the intellectual traditions that formed the backdrop to the Institute in Frankfurt as his family was distant from the Left. He studied philosophy at undergraduate level first at Göttingen (1949–50) and then Bonn (1950–53)—as had his father initially, if markedly less successfully, at Bonn and then Göttingen—with a term between in Zurich. At Bonn, the main philosophical influences on the son were the two full professors, Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, both of whom had been at the heart of the National Socialist movement. Habermas would apparently not come to realize the extent of this until 1956, but nonetheless he still contributed to Rothacker’s 1958 Festschrift, two years after he began working at the Institute. Becker was reinstated as a professor only in 1951, having been banned from teaching in the immediate postwar years. His significance for Habermas, on Müller-Doohm’s account, was that he introduced him to Schelling’s philosophy. Rothacker, who was an active fascist for fifteen years, from before 1933, promoted a philosophical cultural anthropology, and his classes attracted Habermas, we are told, in part for their interdisciplinary outlook. Rothacker conducted a seminar on Humboldt’s philosophy of language that was important for Habermas, and became his doctoral supervisor. Of more long-lasting significance for Habermas’s thought, though, was Karl-Otto Apel, then Rothacker’s assistant, who introduced him to American pragmatism and became a lifelong friend and fellow-thinker in the development of a transcendental pragmatics (the application of Kant’s philosophical method to the linguistic field of pragmatics). Habermas’s own philosophical orientation at the time was broadly Heideggerian. It is described by Müller-Doohm in terms of an emphasis on the primacy of being over thinking and the domination of technical means over practical purposes: those aspects of Heidegger’s early work, in fact, that had been at the fore in Marcuse’s attempt to forge a Heideggerian Marxism in the late 1920s, prior to the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in 1932—although Habermas knew nothing of Marcuse’s early writings at this time.

Again, Habermas’s youthful Heideggerianism is not surprising, since Heidegger’s thought was dominant in German universities in the period. But it was also a result of a literary and theatrical interest in Sartre. As Habermas would put it later, in his disillusioned 1959 essay ‘Heidegger: The Great Influence’: ‘The return of his influence from beyond the Rhine after World War II almost made Heidegger into a reimport; at that time, Being and Time reached most students by way of Being and Nothingness via Sartre’s The Flies. A Heidegger renaissance born of the spirit of the Resistance—what a source of misunderstandings!’ Habermas’s (still unpublished) 1954 doctoral dissertation, completed with little supervision, aged 24, in the nine-month period immediately following his graduation—‘The Absolute and History: On the Ambivalence in Schelling’s Thought’—is recorded as a systematic study of mid-period Schelling, focused on The Ages of the World. Schelling is taken to task for the ahistorical character of what he posits as the primordial ground of finite historical being, in his mystical history of creation. Conceived as a Heideggerian critique of Schelling, the argumentative structure here nonetheless evokes something of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger.

How, then, did it come about that two years after the completion of this thesis Habermas should have been Adorno’s chosen replacement for Dahrendorf? And later, according to a time-honoured but problematic generational narrative, heir to the tradition of Frankfurt Critical Theory itself? The story is an intriguing one, with far more twists and turns, identifications, self-assertions, dis-identifications and disavowals than are suggested by the schematic version familiar from the synoptic history of ideas. Müller-Doohm recounts it in documentary fashion, eschewing the vocabulary (and insights) of psychoanalysis. Indeed, he tends to shy away from judgement in general, except when citing Habermas’s own retrospective reflections, though his narrative carries some subterranean verdicts of its own, ironizing its subject’s standpoint to a greater or lesser extent. This reticence is in part the consequence of writing a biography of a still-living, culturally powerful figure, who is cooperating not only through consent for interviews, but by providing otherwise inaccessible documents, including, intriguingly, the draft of an autobiography. ‘Everything purely private and intimate is excluded’, Müller-Doohm assures us at the outset. As a result, Habermas often seems absent from his own life story, in a manner not unlike the ‘concealing unconcealment’ suffered by Being in Heidegger’s history of metaphysics. In Müller-Doohm’s words, it is ‘distinct types of texts’ that are at ‘the centre’ of the study: the book, he writes, is ‘in the first instance about deeds and only in the second instance about the doer’. Texts as deeds then, in the context of public debates. And there are certainly enough of these to keep the biographer busy: twelve volumes of the Kleine Politische Schriften (Short Political Writings) alone.

Habermas: A Biography is a chronicle of Habermas’s dual career as an academic philosopher and sociologist, on the one hand, and a cultural and political journalist (‘a public intellectual’), on the other. It engages with the thorny issue of Habermas’s place within (or without) Frankfurt Critical Theory only occasionally, and with circumspection. It is keen to displace the issue to the margins of its narrative at the outset, in its prologue, as a kind of anachronistic red herring that had no meaning for Habermas himself in his early Frankfurt years and should be considered a distraction, at best, from his individual position in postwar German thought. Given the dependence of that position on the idea of a transformation of critical theory, however, this might be said to involve a certain amount of wishful thinking on Müller-Doohm’s part, not unconnected to a pervasive anxiety about Habermas being linked with anything to the left of liberal-democratic thought. Rather, the book’s dual optic presents Habermas’s life as a prism through which the political history of postwar Germany is refracted, not just objectively (as in Matthew Specter’s contextual history of ideas, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography, 2010), but as that life’s main self-conscious preoccupation. There is a personal identification with ‘Germany’ here, leading to what Habermas’s critics and opponents came to experience, at key moments, at its limit, as a self-righteous political moralism—though that is not Müller-Doohm’s standpoint. While taking care to report the main dissenting opinions on record, his book is predictably appreciative; it is especially celebratory of Habermas’s significance and achievements at the levels of publishing and established public institutions.

Müller-Doohm is very much a denizen of the Frankfurt scene. Born and raised there, he began his university studies in sociology in 1963 at the Institute for Social Research, where he was taught by both Horkheimer and Adorno, before moving to Marburg. After a brief spell in publishing back in Frankfurt, he became an academic sociologist, specializing in theories of communication, winning a chair at the University of Oldenburg. His 2003 Adorno: A Biography (from which I have borrowed the image of Adorno on holiday in Locarno) is the standard work. And just as that was preceded by a shorter volume on Adorno’s sociology (1996), so this biography follows on from a shorter book, Jürgen Habermas: Leben, Werk, Wirkung (2008). More specifically, it is a product of two collective projects on public intellectuals funded by the German Research Foundation, at the Research Centre for the Sociology of Intellectuals at Oldenburg, of which Müller-Doohm is director—the more general of which is a discourse analysis of interventions in ‘quality magazines’.

Habermas will be 90 in 2019. And he has participated in all the major political debates in Germany since the early 1950s. Born into the crisis of Weimar, coming of age in the immediate postwar, established in a successful academic career by the mid 1960s, an internationally renowned figure by the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and taking an active part in the subsequent debates about German reunification, the two Gulf Wars, so-called ‘post-secular’ societies, the crisis of the European Union, and the governability of globalized economies—he appears as the very epitome of a public intellectual. And it is here, for Müller-Doohm, that Adorno’s significance for Habermas lies. Speaking out, as Adorno did about the fascist past on his return to Germany, not remaining silent, appears for Habermas as the chief political virtue and foundation of a democratic culture and political system. To move on from its fascist past, Habermas believed, it was essential that Germany identify politically with ‘the West’—the very opposite of the position held by Marxists such as Brecht and Bloch, who chose to live and work in ‘the East’. With this sleight of hand, the history of fascism is expelled from the history of ‘the West’ (the history of capitalism), as a foreign body that took root within it in particular places, but is not part of its historical dynamic. This founding assumption conditioned the course of Habermas’s political thought: ‘the West’ is democratic, Germany was not; its salvation therefore lay in its integration into ‘the West’, the democratic aspects of which themselves require further normative grounding and actualization for their development. This is the political sociology of the Cold War, and it is symptomatic that Habermas’s philosophy turned to the emergent discipline of sociology, rather than history, for its empirical ground. The relative strengths and limitations of Habermas’s political thought lie here. It is a thought that has come under increasing pressure since the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War collapsed at the outset of the 1990s.

So, what, for Müller-Doohm, are the main biographical events of Habermas’s life? There are three that give distinctive meaning and justification to his narrative. First, the biological fact of having been born with a cleft palate that required childhood surgery, leaving Habermas with a speech impediment. Second, the public revelation in postwar Germany of the Nazi Judeocide. Third, Heidegger’s failure to acknowledge culpability for his own fascism, in the 1953 publication of his 1935 lectures on metaphysics. Together these three events are taken by Müller-Doohm to have led to a crusading attitude towards speaking out about the lack of public self-reflection on the history of German fascism, a self-reflection that Habermas came to see not only as the condition of building a democratic political culture, but as more or less synonymous with that culture itself. In this respect, although Müller-Doohm does not make the connection, Habermas’s Habilitation thesis and first book of 1962, on the ‘structural transformation of publicness’ (Öffentlichkeit), can be read as a direct polemical renunciation of the elitism of Heidegger’s Being and Time, in which Öffentlichkeit is a central category, constituted by ‘distantiality, averageness, and levelling down’ as ways of being of ‘the they’. ‘By publicness’, Heidegger wrote there, ‘everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone.’ (The translation of Öffentlichkeit as ‘public sphere’ in the 1989 English edition of Habermas’s book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, both obscures this philological-political connection and robs the concept of the residual, negative philosophical depth that shadows its relocation to the discourse of historical sociology.) For Habermas at the end of the 1950s, reconstituting publicness was the condition for postwar West Germany to rejoin the history of bourgeois societies, which was at the same time to make possible its effective political self-criticism—although the limits of that self-criticism are set, crucially, by the category of bourgeois society (bürgerlichen Gesellschaft) itself, qua publicness. The intrinsic connection between bourgeois ‘civil’ society and capitalist political economy—first theorized in the Scottish Enlightenment—is disregarded. Capitalist economy appears, rather, only as an external force transforming bourgeois publicness from a ‘culture-debating’ (kulturräsonierend) society into a ‘culture-consuming’ one, thereby transmuting the function of the principle of publicness itself.

Habermas’s cleft palate placed him in an awkward situation in the Nazi youth organizations, since it was one of three conditions listed in the biology school textbooks of the day (‘together with malicious pictures and comments’) as hereditary diseases, the other two being schizophrenia and club foot. Habermas did not receive the standard notification to join the Jungvolk. His father had to contact the relevant office to secure his admission. Uncomfortable with the aggressive initiation rituals, and having expressed an interest in becoming a doctor, Müller-Doohm records, Habermas was trained for medical (rather than labour) service. In 2005, Habermas himself suggested that the experience of dependence in childhood associated with his condition was a ‘biographical root’ of the ‘sense of the relevance of our interactions with others’ to individual existence that became central to his thought. This is perhaps too general an insight and too retrospective a schema to make much of. But the internal distance from the activities of the Nazi youth movement that his speech defect created (Müller-Doohm credits it with protecting him ‘against identification with the dominant ideology’) certainly seems to have conditioned his response to the surrender of the Reich, recalled as ‘a liberation, historically and personally’. After the revelations about the concentration camps, and the information that became publicly available through the Nuremberg trials, this sense of liberation, now transformed into a determination to take part in the reconstruction of a democratic political culture, sparked Habermas’s truly prodigious journalistic activities, which began while he was still a student.

One of the most striking things about Habermas: A Biography is its strong sense of the formative force of wartime Nazism and its immediate aftermath in West Germany upon Habermas, as a member of the so-called Flakhelfer-generation—those born in the late 1920s, who were too young for full military service but in many cases acted as anti-aircraft gun assistants at the end of the war. There is a tendency to think of German fascism as the experience of the generation of the Left in the 1930s, but the leading literary and cultural figures of Habermas’s generation—Heinrich Böll, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass and Christa Wolf—had a more intimate sense of the everyday actualities of its political culture.

From 1952 to early 1956, when he took up his position with Adorno at the Institute in Frankfurt (between the ages of 23 and 26), Habermas wrote more than seventy articles for newspapers and periodicals, the majority of which were published. He thus arrived in Frankfurt an already accomplished intellectual journalist and polemicist. It was his 1953 article on Heidegger in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that paved his way. As its title indicates, ‘Thinking With Heidegger Against Heidegger’ was Habermas’s preliminary settling of accounts with the figure who had until then provided his philosophical orientation. The thing that shocked Habermas about Heidegger in 1953 was not that he had been a fascist (that was hardly exceptional in German academic philosophy, even if the Rectoral Address of 1933 was startling in its enthusiasm), but that he chose to publish his 1935 lectures, Introduction to Metaphysics, with the famous comment about ‘the inner truth and greatness’ of the movement of National Socialism, ‘(that is . . . the encounter between planetary technology and modern man)’, ‘without annotation’ (Habermas’s phrase), implying that his view remained unchanged—as indeed it largely did.

At this point, Habermas did not yet link this political stance to Heidegger’s philosophy; rather he saw it as a personal moral failing within the present, a failure ‘to question the past again and again, as something that still lies ahead’—as Heidegger’s own philosophy was understood by Habermas to ‘require’ of us. This is a moral failing taken to pervade the political culture of the Adenauer years, for which Heidegger’s failure thus became emblematic. The critique was thus immanent to the historical dimension of Heidegger’s own philosophy in Being and Time, which Habermas described in the piece as ‘the most significant philosophical event since Hegel’s Phenomenology’. Nonetheless, despite his insistence that he was ‘not concerned here with the philosopher Martin Heidegger as philosopher’ (a recurrent defensive motif in successive Heidegger ‘affairs’ up to the recent publication of The Black Notebooks), a seed of doubt about ‘the intense eschatological aura’ of Heidegger’s ‘exhortation’ to oppose the ‘condition of ordinary life’ had been sown. It would not be long before Habermas would trace these concerns back to the political function of Heidegger’s overarching conception of the ‘history of Being’ and the necessarily ‘prophetic’ (esoteric) rather than ‘communicative’ (exoteric) character of the philosophical discourse that conveyed it. The political roots of Habermas’s 1981 magnum opus, Theory of Communicative Action— in which he broke definitively with the historical metaphysics of first-generation Critical Theory, precisely for its metaphysical character—lie here, in a liberal-democratic reaction against Heidegger.

Adorno had lectured on ‘Heidegger and Linguistic Confusion’ at Frankfurt in the winter term of 1951–52 and would have been aware of Habermas’s article and the exchanges it provoked, including a brief, lofty response from Heidegger himself. Equally significant for Adorno was Habermas’s first major article, ‘The Dialectic of Rationalization’, published in Merkur in August 1954 (still without an English translation). As Müller-Doohm points out, Adorno could hardly have avoided seeing in its title an allusion to the argument of Dialectic of Enlightenment, although Habermas denied it, admitting only that he had read the book ‘long ago’. (‘Long ago’ for a 25-year-old was, of course, not so many years. It was not published until 1947, two years before Habermas entered university.) Either way, Adorno was impressed by what he considered an essay on ‘compulsive- and pseudo-consumption’, for all that its points of reference—including Heidegger, Rothacker and Gehlen—remained distant from his own. In Habermas’s appropriation, removed from the framework of the history of Being, Heidegger’s critique of technological rationality approached Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason. At the same time, Habermas had developed a growing interest in buttressing his cultural-political critiques with the findings of empirical sociology. He became Adorno’s assistant in February 1956, taking over the project on the political attitudes of students that Dahrendorf had left stalled. Later, he would recall ‘two dimensions of time’ as defining the work of the Institute in this period—the postwar present of the establishment of sociology as an academic discipline and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition prior to 1933—and insist on his identification with the former. The latter he remembered as narrow and ‘almost dogmatic’. Yet during this period, it was his own work on Marx and Hegel that both distinguished him from his peers and led to a reputation within the Institute as a radical.

In fact, it was Habermas’s review essay on Marx and Marxism, written for Gadamer’s new journal, Philosophische Rundschau, in 1957 that was the occasion for the increasingly conservative Horkheimer to express his ire against Habermas, and demand that Adorno make him leave the Institute. Habermas’s support for the movements against rearmament and nuclear armament had already irked Horkheimer, who saw them as naive collusion with the Eastern bloc. He now accused Habermas’s account of Marx of treating revolution as ‘a kind of affirmative idea’, incompatible with ‘what we mean by critique and critical theory’. (He was also worried about the Institute’s funding from German industry.) Gadamer, on the other hand, liked the piece because it ‘avoided all political judgement’. Adorno, to his credit, stood firm. He could see the connection between the way Habermas read Marx and Horkheimer’s own early essays and, Müller-Doohm suggests, sensed that ‘Horkheimer’s anger was fuelled by the fact that Habermas reminded him of his own past as a social revolutionary’. Adorno continued to defend Habermas when Horkheimer declined to publish the delayed empirical study on the political consciousness of students in the Institute’s series on the grounds that Habermas’s introduction merely replaced the word ‘revolution’ with ‘social democracy’ (not such a small change by the late 1950s, one might have thought). Adorno, on the other hand, called it a ‘showpiece’ and a ‘masterpiece’. But given that Horkheimer was the director, it is hardly surprising that Habermas did not feel especially welcome at the Institute. He resigned in 1959, without another job, but with a grant from the German Research Foundation for his Habilitationproject. He would return five years later. In the meantime, he had met Marcuse at the centennial conference on Freud, who appeared to him as ‘the political spirit of the old Frankfurt School’.

The anti-capitalist political goals of ‘the old Frankfurt school’ reappeared within the student movement of the 1960s, but neither Adorno nor, ultimately, Habermas was equal to their radicalism—for all Horkheimer’s early fears about him. Habermas’s tired and intemperate attribution to the student leader Rudi Dutschke of a utopianism become ‘left-wing fascism’, in 1967, damaged his relations with the organized, extra-parliamentary Left irreparably. But he nonetheless maintained an intense critical dialogue with the protest movements through participation in a series of debates in 1967–69. Müller-Doohm transfers the ‘with and against’ trope of the early essay on Heidegger to Habermas’s relations with the protest movements of the latter half of the 1960s. And as in the first case, the ‘against’ quickly came to outweigh the ‘with’, at least at the level of effective action. Habermas accused the protesters of provoking the state violence they opposed, thus effectively blaming the victims, while supporting their goals. His personalized denunciations of Frankfurt student leaders including Hans-Jürgen Krahl and his own assistant, Oskar Negt, as ‘pseudo-revolutionaries’ is presented in the biography in the dry Habermasian language of exemplary participation in a collective ‘clarification of the normative questions concerning the practical aspects of communal life’. This normative approach did not extend to being prepared to testify in court in support of students blockading the Springer press, nor to supporting the students when Adorno famously called the police to have them evicted from the Institute. In fact, they had gone to occupy the Institute building because Habermas had locked them out of the Sociology department, which was their organizational base. Müller-Doohm records the events scrupulously.

After leaving the Institute in 1959, Habermas was not unemployed for long. He submitted his Habilitation on the transformation of publicness at Marburg, with the support of the Marxist state theorist Wolfgang Abendroth, and Gadamer secured for him an extraordinary professorship in philosophy at Heidelberg in summer 1961 (counter-intuitively supporting his candidature against that of the more hermeneutical Apel). It was Gadamer’s Truth and Method, published the previous year, that Habermas credits with helping him ‘to find his way back into academic philosophy’. Habermas mainly taught philosophy of science during his years at Heidelberg. But his five years away from Frankfurt —he returned in 1964—are most notable for the brilliant early essays collected in Theory and Practice (1963) and the first stage of the notorious ‘positivist dispute in German sociology’ (1961–68)—sparked by Dahrendorf’s invitation to Popper and Adorno to speak at the same conference in Tübingen—to which Habermas made two polemical contributions. Although Müller-Doohm is loath to read things this way, it is during this period that Habermas’s thought was at its most ‘Frankfurtian’; never more so than in his 1960 lecture ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxism as Critique’ and the article ‘The Analytical Theory of Science and Dialectics’ (1963). Freed of the oppressive oversight and defensive Oedipal impulses of Horkheimer, for a brief period Habermas openly explored the theoretical terms and ongoing viability of Horkheimer’s original 1937 ‘Critical Theory’ project. Indeed, his later transformation of the idea of a critical theory of society remained tied to it, insofar as he interpreted the problem bequeathed by Horkheimer (and left unaddressed by Adorno) as that of the clarification of its normative ground.

Müller-Doohm forgoes sustained exposition of these texts. He reads the former only for its modest political conclusion propounding the prospects of ‘progressive democratization’ after the historical undermining of the ground of revolutionary class consciousness, neglecting the programmatic theoretical self-consciousness of its focus on the concept of critique. And he deals with the implications of the positivist dispute for the plausibility of his ‘non-Frankfurt School’ narrative with a frank acknowledgement that stands in flagrant contradiction to it: ‘Habermas’s contributions to the positivist debate removed any doubts as to whether he should be considered a member of the Frankfurt circle, as he fully supported Adorno’s position.’ This is in stark contrast to opening statements such as: ‘The trivial reason why Habermas is nevertheless perceived as one of the school’s representatives is simply that, by the end of the 1960s, he had already taught for several terms at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt as an ordinary professor of philosophy and sociology’; and the non sequitur ‘He is connected with the radically critical thought that we identify with the Frankfurt School’s readings of Hegel, Marx and Freud because he was present as someone raising crucial issues and as one of the dominant interpreters of transitional moments in the decades that witnessed the cultural and political liberalization of Germany.’

If not exactly a right-wash, Habermas: A Biography certainly downplays the extent to which from the late 1950s until 1967 Habermas was part of a left intellectual culture that drew inspiration from the Marxism of the 1930s, and was as such anti-capitalist in intent. By downplaying the intimate theoretical relationship between Habermas’s writing of the late 1950s and 1960s and Critical Theory, Müller-Doohm removes the standpoint from which the meaning of Habermas’s subsequent move towards a general theory of communicative rationality—turning back from a problematizing transdisciplinarity to a renewal of transcendental philosophy—appears in its full political significance. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that the implicit distinctions that Müller-Doohm mobilizes to finesse the ‘critical theory’ problem—between ‘School’, ‘circle’, ‘Institute’ and theoretical or ‘doctrinal’ position—are useful for a finer-grained intellectual history; if not fine-grained enough with respect to theoretical issues. The reduction of a field of critical-theoretical discourse or a problematic to the unity of a ‘doctrine’ is a crude polemical act that allows Müller-Doohm to disavow some fairly obvious connections. (There was surely no ‘doctrinal’ unity to the first generation themselves.) It is striking that in a bibliography of over 400 secondary items, the most significant landmarks in the historiography of the Frankfurt School—Martin Jay’s 1972 Dialectical Imagination, Helmut Dubiel’s 1979 Theory and Politics (trans. 1989) and Rolf Wiggerhaus’s 1986 The Frankfurt School (trans. 1995)—are all missing.

Also missing are more political points of immediate comparative theoretical reference, such as Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s 1972 Public Sphere [Öffentlichkeit] and Experience: Towards an Organizational Analysis of Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere—a direct left-wing counterpoint to Habermas’s first book—even though Negt and Kluge themselves pop up throughout. Negt, whose PhD had been supervised by Adorno at Frankfurt, was appointed by Habermas as his assistant at Heidelberg and accompanied him back to Frankfurt. He introduced the famous 1968 collection of left counterblasts provoked by Habermas’s notorious remark about the danger of ‘left-wing fascism’ in student politics, The Left Responds to Jürgen Habermas. Kluge, who had studied law before becoming a student of Adorno’s, has been an unrelenting ironist and critic of the formal uses to which law can be put under fascism, in his films and prose fictions as well as his innovative theoretical writings. Here, though, the two mainly appear in formal roles at celebratory rituals, from the mid-1980s onwards, writing or giving speeches in honour of Habermas on his birthdays or at prize-giving ceremonies, or defending him against criticism from the right. On Habermas’s 60th birthday, in 1989, Negt bizarrely even published an apology for having co-edited The Left Responds to Jürgen Habermas. On his 70th, he appears writing another eulogy. For Habermas’s 80th, Kluge (a regular at prize-givings) appears in a photograph giving the official speech opening the exhibition of Habermas’s books at the German National Library. In fact, the latter part of Müller-Doohm’s book is an accelerating procession of birthdays and prizes, in which the prestige-value of the invitations (on occasion from the presidents of foreign states), institutions and events, and the importance of particular people attending, are constantly stressed. The extent to which German academic life appears to revolve around birthdays—of both the living and the dead—is genuinely extraordinary. There is something truly anxious about these celebrations of the passage of chronological time; some deep-seated need to register the ordered management of time, to subordinate oneself to it, and in so doing to place oneself within a series of thinkers imaginarily extending into posterity. At times, Müller-Doohm’s biography itself reads like a eulogy in the form of a curriculum vitae compiled for an application to a hall of great thinkers. As Habermas himself declared early on—in uncharacteristically Adornian mode (concluding his 1959 essay on Heidegger): ‘our relationship to greatness is a broken one’.

The personal conflicts set off in Frankfurt by the political struggles of 1967–69 had by 1971 left Habermas open to offers from elsewhere. He took the opportunity to become a director of the new Max Planck Institute in Bavaria. Those ten years in Munich, ‘In the Ivory Tower of Social Scientific Research’, as the biography has it, marked both a return to directing interdisciplinary empirical projects and the writing of the book that continues to define his position within the tradition of Critical Theory, Theory of Communicative Action. However, it was by no means institutional plain sailing. The members of the large research team he assembled were rivalrous, and Müller-Doohm gives a pained account of the problems of academic management that Habermas encountered. If he had hoped to have his very own version of the Frankfurt Institute, he was to be disappointed. The project ended in failure ten years later, and Habermas returned once again to a chair in Frankfurt, leveraging offers from abroad to improve his situation there.

The most lively parts of Müller-Doohm’s book are the accounts of ideological exchanges in the newspapers and the goings-on inside the Frankfurt publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, for which Habermas acted for decades as an influential editorial consultant, as well as becoming one of its most famous living authors. The range and political intensity of the debates in popular intellectual journals and the broadsheet newspapers in Germany from the 1960s through to the end of the century is remarkable. This is where Müller-Doohm’s book comes into its own, working out of extensive newspaper archives. Thus, we get a four-page account of the 1998 ‘Quarrel with Sloterdijk’ over bioethics, for example, while Sloterdijk’s best-selling 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason—which offered a radically non-Habermasian alternative future for critical theory, just at the moment when Habermas was giving the lectures that would become The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity—is mentioned only in a footnote. (It massively out-sold Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, the sales figures for which Müller-Doohm cites approvingly as evidence of Habermas’s extra-academic appeal.) The ominous turn to the right in Sloterdijk’s subsequent work has over-shadowed his Critique in its English-language reception. Yet it was the one book to take off, systematically, from a critique of Adorno’s final essays. Interestingly, Habermas’s review of it, published in Cohn-Bendit’s paper, Der Pflasterstrand, was strangely muted, acknowledging that it is not a neo-conservative text, but a literarily brilliant alternative exercise in the reflective power of disappointed Enlightenment—albeit one that exits ‘the communicative community’ of those practising reason as discursive universality. This contrasts strikingly with the treatment of Nietzscheanism in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, indicating something of the strategic character of Habermas’s polemics.

It is in his dealings with Suhrkamp that we get an inkling of Habermas the man, beyond the texts: the breadth of his interests and an occasional self-protective ruthlessness, in tension with his constant calls for public dialogue as the space of democratic will-formation. Habermas served as an adviser to the Theorie series for fifteen years between 1964 and 1979, and played an active broad role in the editorial direction of the house until the end of 2003, including in the rejection of the ‘editorial charter’ of autumn 1968 that proposed the democratization of its internal decision-making processes. Habermas appears throughout as a close ally of Siegfried Unseld, the publisher, and he used this position effectively to further his own interests. It is shocking to read of him threatening to withdraw his titles in December 1971 after Suhrkamp published a supposedly defamatory poem by the Cuban Heberto Padilla. The English translation of the offending item renders it as follows:

Those who knew him, do not find it surprising
That Theodor Adorno returns from the dead.
In both parts of Germany
Everyone is waiting for him, except, of course,
Habermas and Ulbricht.

Defamation or mild personal offence? Unseld apologized for Suhrkamp’s supposedly ‘unacceptable’ act of publication; agreed to print no more copies and pulped the remaining printed sheets. So much for undistorted communication, one might say.

Much later, in a related but politically more significant episode, the historian Joachim Fest, in his 2006 autobiography, Not Me: A German Childhood (published by Rowohlt), repeated an apocryphal story about Habermas in the 1980s eating an incriminating document from his youth. Habermas refused the offer of a correction inserted into the existing copies. An injunction having been obtained, 20,000 copies were pulped. The absurdity of the story was not sufficient for Habermas to countenance its continued circulation even as admittedly false. Once again, Müller-Doohm forgoes psychoanalytical interpretation. Politically, it was Fest’s book itself that was the greater offence. But again, what chances for ultimately undistorted communication if these kinds of conflicts are to be decided by censorship in advance? There is a sensitivity here of a wholly personal nature. Thus doth the human Habermas sneak into Müller-Doohm’s book.

With Habermas very much living on, the end of the book is necessarily somewhat arbitrary, mainly resting with the eightieth-birthday celebrations and appreciations of 2009. However, this is also convenient, since ‘The Taming of Capitalism and the Democratization of Europe’ announced in the title of Chapter 12, appears a tad complacent in the aftermath of the 2008 world financial crisis. (Müller-Doohm’s book appeared in German in 2014; time enough for the question to have at least been raised.) Habermas has now seen fit to embrace the neoliberal Macron’s scheme for EU reform. And indeed it is ironic in this context that with the publication of the final volume of the Kleine Politische Schriften in 2013—translated as The Lure of Technology in 2015—Habermas should have found himself confronted once again by a sociology student of Adorno’s, in the form of Wolfgang Streeck’s withering critique of the absence of the concept of capitalism from his analysis of the present. As political debates in Europe have shifted once again towards global economy, the philosophical weakness of the turn to a purely communicative conception of action and an insistence on consensus in all political decision-making is thrown into sharp relief. The birthday eulogies will no doubt continue in Frankfurt, but critical theory will have to find its future elsewhere.


[1] Stefan Müller-Doohm, Habermas: A Biography, Polity: Cambridge 2016, £25, hardback, 598 pp, 978 0 7456 8906 7

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