No, Marxism Isn’t Economic Determinism

Critical theorist Axel Honneth accuses Marxism of having a narrowly economic idea of human emancipation. That’s wrong — and his own work could use a more structural understanding of social conflict and how progress really happens.

Critical theorist Axel Honneth’s dismissal of Marxian class struggle leads him to obscure the reality of domination and thus ignore the question of what to do about it. (SPÖ Presse und Kommunikation)

The Frankfurt School has renewed its interest in socialism. After a forty-year hiatus, its descendants are now willing to confront the fact that there must be an alternative to capitalism that emancipatory movements can strive for. As Axel Honneth writes his The Idea of Socialism, “widespread discontent has remained oddly mute and introverted . . . it simply lacks the capacity to think beyond the present and imagine a society beyond capitalism.” There is an emerging consensus that critical theory should reverse this trend.

Honneth’s shift is surely welcome. Indeed, he is one of the most influential critical theorists, having once followed in Max Horkheimer’s footsteps as the director of the famed Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 2001 to 2018.

This influence should also inform our evaluation of the direction in which Honneth is taking critical theory today. His legacy will have largely been to turn this tradition away from Karl Marx and toward Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He has also taken a pragmatist turn in recent years, but at no point has he reconsidered his trajectory overall, which is to root critical theory in idealism. Yet others who want to rise to the immense challenge of imagining a noncapitalist society should indeed reconsider this approach.

Honneth’s objections to turning to Marx are basically the same ones de rigueur in academic circles for generations — casting Marxism as reductive, economistic, deterministic, productivist, homogenizing, etc. Here our concern is not to challenge Honneth on these points but to critique him at a different and more fundamental methodological level. What is more important is the way Honneth uses Marxism as a foil — leading him to obscure the reality of domination and thus bracket off questions of what to do about it.

Honneth portrays Marxism as a theory whose economism blinds it to the broad, emancipatory horizons that his own view illuminates. Yet precisely the virtue of contemporary Marxism lies in its insistence on analyzing institutional constraints. Such analyses are not so far off from pragmatism as Honneth imagines them to be, and also tell us something more politically salient than what he offers about the obstacles we face in changing the world.

Class Reductionism?

According to Honneth, Marxism is problematic because it uses an untenable structuralist-functionalist logic, or considers norms and values only insofar as they serve the interests of capital accumulation. It is also utilitarian because it sees class struggle as a battle over structurally conditioned competition, driven by economic interests. Honneth argues that the “Marxian doctrine of class struggle fails above all because it views all conflict among groups or classes as economically motivated, whereas historical reality suggests that experiences of injustice and of frustrated hopes have far greater motivating power.” The outcome is not a good one, for Marxism limits the scope of emancipation prematurely and arbitrarily, as well as the grounds for critiquing noneconomic forms of domination. On this reading, Marx caused us to lose sight of the intersubjective structure of freedom, which meant that Marxism failed to envision human flourishing beyond the downfall of class societies.

In seminal texts like Disrespect and The Struggle for Recognition, Honneth claims instead that feelings of disrespect and humiliation — not economic interests — are the fundamental drive to social conflict. Honneth uses Hegel’s lord and bondage scenario to illustrate the tendency for dominant groups (the lord) to see norms as natural things in themselves, whereas oppressed groups (servants) relate to norms with a different, transformative attitude that challenges exclusive practices. Honneth later argues

the source of recurrent social struggles is thought to lie in the fact that any disadvantaged social group will attempt to appeal to norms that are already institutionalized but that are being interpreted or applied in hegemonic ways, and to turn those norms against the dominant groups by relying on them for a moral justification of their own marginalized needs and interests.

For Honneth, the moral horizon of demands for recognition is potentially interminable — opening the conceptual doors to a more expansive idea of emancipation than Marxism had to offer. But this idea isn’t only moral. As Honneth makes clear, these moral contests also shape institutions by challenging the norms that cohere them, like in the law. Emancipation is therefore a struggle of the dominated for recognition, in which dominant norms are continuously revised to become more inclusive, both intersubjectively and institutionally.

Marx’s purported failure to develop an expansive way of thinking about human flourishing also led critical theory astray from its mission of facilitating and supporting emancipatory struggles. Critical theory has a peculiar self-perception of having some intrinsic connection to emancipation — and, specifically, continuing on from Marx’s credo that critical philosophy is the “self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” According to Honneth, Marxists failed in this endeavor, too, because they imagined that socialism would not only bring about the collapse of class society but resolve all social conflicts in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, their economism precluded them from thinking about emancipatory struggles sui generis, as an invariant part of social reproduction. In other words, Marxism closes off the struggle for recognition prematurely, limiting its usefulness to emancipatory movements. Thus, Marxism cannot really be “critical,” in Honneth’s sense.

The trouble for critical theory, however, is that Marxism is still the only serious contender for an alternative social theory to various sorts of individualism. Honneth concedes that what Marx got right was a theory of history that shifted critique decisively away from seeing society as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. Other traditions, like liberalism, classical republicanism, or psychoanalysis, tend to see social transformations as the by-products of individuals’ attempts to free themselves from the internal heteronomy of their desires. Whether one is struggling against an unfree will, arbitrary law, or the Oedipus complex, the fundamental drive is for autonomy. By contrast, Marx upholds a view of social freedom, where groups educate themselves through struggle to expand the absolute scope of freedom for all individuals.

It is also on this metatheoretical level that Marxism’s supposedly narrow focus on class antagonism inspires Honneth’s alternative idea of what critical theory should be doing. For him, the solution must avoid economistic Marxism but keep the collective in mind.

Where Honneth lands is on a sort of idealist pragmatism. Pragmatism has the virtue of explaining how agents within oppressed groups internalize dominant norms, reinterpret them, and then use the mutual expectations of those norms throughout society to give themselves institutional leverage. Mutual expectations are an enabling condition for emancipatory practices because they provide a common basis for challenging one-sided interpretations and making them more inclusive. Thus, institutions can change to accommodate new interpretations in a social learning process that is inherently conflictual. This process must recurrently challenge the dominant norms in society “in the face of a stubborn tendency toward their naturalization.”

Ultimately, Hegel and John Dewey unite to replace Marx in a neopragmatist theory of recognition that is neither individualistic nor economistic. What critical theory should be doing, then, is to articulate and interpret the struggle for recognition within the human sciences to generate emancipatory knowledge.

Moral Psychology

If Marxism has long fallen into disrepute within critical theory, it remains a foil for Honneth because it helps to justify his normative theory and that theory’s usefulness to social and political conflict. In a nutshell, his point is to show that Marxism is neither as critical nor as radical as it seems, given its limited scope, and that this warrants his comparatively broader vision.

Over the years, critics of Honneth have consistently pointed out problems with using prepolitical experience as a normative reference point for understanding injustice. Nancy Fraser famously argued that it is prima facie implausible to uncover the basic moral structure of all discontent. For her, only a tendentious reduction of political sociology to moral psychology allows Honneth to project the struggle for recognition onto every conflict. Others also note the curious simplicity of a formal theory that lacks sociological content, which leaves a vacuum; even if one agrees that recognition will eventually resolve our problems, so what? Our desires for recognition tell us precious little about what we need to do to achieve it.

There is an ironic twist in Honneth’s oeuvre. His theory of recognition is seemingly distinguished from Marxism by its broad normative horizon, but it is also vacuous when it comes to articulating what system mechanisms need to change and what would make them change for the better. For Honneth, resolving any and all social conflict involves reinterpreting dominant norms. No doubt it does; but this minimal claim fails to ask a basic political questions: If people are conscious of experiencing disrespect in basic social institutions, then what is preventing desires for recognition from becoming effective political demands?

In the early 2000s, political philosopher Iris Young began to theorize the concept of “structural injustice” using the normative categories of domination (defined as institutional constraints on self-determination) and oppression (defined as institutional constraints on self-realization). Yet Honneth instead overgeneralizes claims about what motivates social struggle onto claims about remedies and aims, collapsing domination into oppression and refusing to countenance that there could be a meaningful difference between them. This comes at the cost of obscuring domination — and thus equivocating on what he means by freedom or emancipation.

Recognition theory obscures domination because, in its anti-Marxist variant, it misses the normative salience of an important link in the chain; i.e., what dominated people are up against, or constraints. It is not enough to say that oppressed groups have an interest in reinterpreting hegemonic norms and will therefore produce emancipatory knowledge, reflected at the level of critical theory. Clearly, there is something getting in the way of that. Even if we grant that recognition is simply what freedom entails, in its ultimate sense, it still does not follow that such desires lead anyone to reflect adequately on the obstacles to achieving it.

It may well be that Honneth and Marxism are talking about different problems, and he may even be right that Marxism does not build the interminability of the struggle to reinterpret dominant norms into its methodology . . . but why would it? Structural injustices are Marxism’s focus, and, contra Honneth, this focus makes a great deal of sense if we are strongly committed to the idea that structural domination, not just conflict in general, should cease to exist. We would not want to make an ontological claim that roots structural injustice in the type of beings that humans are. There is no attractive reason to do so that would not reify the injustices that critical theory should want to undermine.

The same cannot be said for an interest in eradicating all social struggle and conflict tout court. Conflicts are not necessarily symptomatic of injustice, in the sense that the conflict arises from relations of domination or that one side of the conflict is oppressed. One might retort that many conflicts challenging hegemonic, naturalized norms are healthy for functioning democracies to promote social inclusion. In such a case, struggle is indeed likely to be ongoing. But an adequate critical theory should be able to disambiguate between conflicts that might always exist and structural injustices that one hopes will not always exist.

The persistence of domination demands that critical theory engage with social science, not just moral psychology, lest philosophical reconstructions of the ongoing process of norm interpretation do precious little to facilitate thinking about how to change those things that we can no longer accept. Honneth’s focus on moral psychology tends to instead motivate an overly capacious notion of norms and institutions that eclipses questions of constraint. Whether this view can make itself useful to social movements is not certain, since due consideration of constraints is what normally inspires a political strategy.

Ultimately, it’s unclear what the process of norm interpretation amounts to. It is too vague, as is critical theory’s role in facilitating it.

Materialist Moment

One way of putting the argument set out thus far is that a debate between Honneth and Marxism is not principally about human motivation or normative desires. Rather, it is about how to think about changing the world in the face of structural injustice.

Honneth doesn’t see why a class-division type structural injustice requires thinking in a different way about our interests in emancipation. He thinks that all these questions can be subsumed within the idea of reinterpreting dominant norms, as if constraints only lie in what people think and feel rather than in the adverse incentives and constraints that accompany domination.

Contemporary Marxian social science, however, makes a much more modest and politically salient claim than what Honneth attributes to it, which is that it is necessary to eliminate the constraints imposed by class domination to achieve the wider goal of human emancipation. It is also not as far off from pragmatism as Honneth imagines it to be.

First, it is possible to develop a materialist pragmatism. Rahel Jaeggi has argued for preserving the “materialist moment” of moral critique by combining the idea of social practice together with the idea of problem-solving. A social practice is an informal, repeated, and rule-governed behavior that is the condition of possibility of certain institutions, without being reducible to them. Those who participate in a practice tacitly understand what they must do to make a practice successful as the type of practice that it is, which is a judgment that is often based on certain norms that are implicit within the practice.

Practices also have their own internal problem-solving dynamics. When people confront constraints and try to do something about them, or try to solve a social problem, the result is rarely a clean slate. Instead, they tend to create new problems with which others must contend in the future. At the same time, the implicit norms of the practices that impose constraints on social actors also provide the moral and ideological resources for identifying that there is indeed a problem that they must address. These embedded norms enable or disable perceptions that there is a problem, or what the nature of that problem is, which set the terms for how one goes about resolving it or convincing others that it should be resolved.

A materialist pragmatism goes a long way to minimizing the idealist tendency to tendentiously interpret social development as one long moral march to progress. Dominant norms exist, but they exist in response to constraints that hinder their reinterpretation. It follows that people have various reactions to their constraints that run the gamut from ideological consent to resignation to deep-seated resentment of inequality.

Outraged Rabble

Such a view is implicit in much post-1970s analytical Marxist social science seeking to illuminate what Marx called the “silent compulsion of economic relations.” For instance, historian Robert Brenner has promoted an influential class-struggle, or conflict-centered, research program, in contrast to the earlier “productive-forces Marxism” that postulated the technological-determinist, teleological theory of history that Honneth’s critique always seems to target.

Brenner’s idea is that in every society there are relations among direct producers, relations among exploiters, and relations among direct producers and exploiters that, taken together, make possible people’s regular access to land, labor, tools, or other resources necessary to reproduce social life. The nexus of practices that constitute these relationships determine one’s access to the social product, depending on one’s position in these relations. Brenner calls these “social-property relations” to clarify that they do not only define the resources at individuals’ disposal but how individuals gain access to resources and their incomes more generally.

Put simply, social-property relations condition how one acts, not just what one has; one’s position determines what one must do to get what one wants. One can thus expect individuals and families to systematically adopt a particular set of economic strategies that correspond to their constraints. Brenner dubs these strategies “rules for reproduction,” which, enacted in aggregate, give rise to corresponding and historically specific developmental patterns. Call this a pragmatic historical materialism.

The normative dimension to this latter view is undeveloped thus far, but it isn’t difficult to see what it might be like. As with all practices, rules for reproduction and their corresponding social-property relations have norms by which participants perceive their failure or success according to the purposes and goals that are posited and reproduced along with the structure itself. We can see how certain norms would emerge, directed toward societal reproduction in this historically specific sense (e.g., hard work should merit high reward), that form the basis upon which people articulate demands for justice.

The normative and the material are entangled within historical patterns of development. This is why, as Hegel says, class conflict rarely erupts in capitalist societies simply because the “rabble” is starving — but because they are also outraged. Lack of resources is a reality perceived through normative expectations, which are culturally rooted but (decisively) also adapt to the competitive constraints that capitalism places on every individual, regardless of cultural dispositions.

Hegel on His Head

What distinguishes historical materialism is its strong commitment to facilitating a better understanding of the historically specific conditions of political economy that generate equally specific constraints on self-determination, or domination, that pervade and inhibit emancipatory struggles of all kinds.

A pragmatic historical materialism may also illuminate normative complexity in a way that an all-encompassing theory of recognition cannot. It would investigate how people, especially those subject to domination, engage norms to confront constraints. People with few choices often navigate them using the justifications available, which cannot be exactly the same thing as sharing values and ideals.

The same is true of the other side, too. Historical materialism permits a healthy skepticism that, for instance, members of the capitalist class really share an ideal of democratic freedom. Perhaps they justify their behavior in its name, or their concessions to democracy are more conjunctural than they are fixed. It is not as though the capitalists, bankers, and financiers of this world engage in class conflict for lack of social respect!

In sum, the development of social structures is not reducible to a struggle for recognition. In performing such a reduction, one will miss much of the texture of social conflict — contradiction, constraint, domination — at the cost of becoming ever further removed from meaningful discussions about political strategy. Without that, socialism will remain out of reach, both in our imaginations and in fact.

Where Hegel belongs, then, is stood on his head.