The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno Habermas’s Marxism

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This article was written by James Gordon Finlayson. Rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.
The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno

1. Habermas’s Marxism

There seems to be more sympathy among radicals on the academic left for Adorno’s conception of critical theory than there is for that of Jürgen Habermas1 If I am right, this prompts the question of what the reasons are for the relative charity shown to Adorno and the relative hostility towards Habermas?2 One reason for the latter might be that Habermas has never Wilde’s good advice: a man cannot be too careful in choosing his enemies.3 He has succeeded in making enemies the left as well as on the right. Over the years he has demonstrated a ruthlessly pragmatic willingness to cull sacred cows - such as the philosophy of history and the conception of society as a macrosubject - in the interests of theoretical hygiene. Furthermore, he has never shirked from swimming against the intellectual tide, as is demonstrated by his defence in the 1980’s of modernity as an unfinished project, and by his tireless championing of the unfashionable causes of rationalism and moral universalism. This may help explain why so many academic Marxists, in a consensus that is ironically almost worthy of an ideal speech situation, concur that Habermas has sold out theoretically to analytic philosophy and to liberal political philosophy, and politically to some form of market socialism. I do not lie the term ‘selling out’. For one thing, it is freighted with entirely inappropriate connotations of apostasy, for the willingness to abandon or revise untenable theories and to borrow from diverse intellectual traditions are to my mind epistemic and intellectual virtues. Nonetheless Habermas’s work continues to provoke hostile reponses from Marxists, which may stem from the suspicion that his reconstruction of historical materialism and critical social theory represents less a movement within Marxism than a departure from it.4

I doubt that there is a useful distinction to be made between these two. Take the example of Habermas’s defence of the post-war welfare state compromise. Habermas defends Western liberal democratic institutions insofar as they embody the normative, universalistic ideals of the European Enlightenment, and believes that these institutions are worth preserving insofar as they are able to coexist with, and contain the corrosive and destabilising effects of, capitalist market economies.5 Of course Habermas is not a Marxist, if that means believing that the state should be abolished or allowed to wither away, and that the market economy should be replaced by an alternative politically or democratically regulated institution of production and distribution. But if having a commitment to the values of a liberal democratic culture, and to a radical conception of redistributive justice, grounded in the universalistic ideals of the Enlightenment, is a sufficient credential for being a Marxist these days, then he is one. There is a lot more to be said on the question of Habermas’s relation to Marxism and there are no short answers to be had. A short answer to the question of whether the term ‘Marxist’ is still applicable to Habermas’s social theory would anyway only be of totemic or academic importance, i.e. of importance only to those for whom Marxism is a badge of allegiance, or to those who want to place Habermas’s work within or without a particular intellectual tradition.

I raise the issue of Habermas’s Marxism primarily as the background to a more tractable question concerning the relative merits of Adorno’s vis à vis Habermas’s conception of ideology. The question was raised in a recent issue of this journal in which Deborah Cook defends Adorno’s theory of ideology and attacks Habermas’s social theory as ‘ideologically suspect.’6 I take her views to be an instructive example of the tendency I have described and which I think is misplaced, and I shall take this opportunity to defend Habermas against Cook, and to reinforce Habermas’s well-placed objections to Adorno’s conception of critical theory.7 But beyond that I intend to show that Habermas’s criticisms do not go far enough, for the concept of ideology as Adorno uses it, and which Cook defends, is actually incoherent. A fortiori it is of no practical or theoretical use to social theorists and they ought to look for alternatives. Furthermore, the classical pejorative concept of ideology is, though not incoherent, too outlandish to be a basic explanatory category of social theory. Whilst Habermas’s version of social criticism is complex, and sometimes cumbersome, it is much more promising than Adorno’s.8 Whether Habermas’s critical social theory is still a kind of ideology-criticism is a moot point. One can think of it that way, but Habermas’s conception of what ideology is differs widely both from Adorno’s and from the classical pejorative concept, and this difference in the use of the concept alters the very nature and point of ideology criticism.

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