In nlr 67 Göran Therborn argued that Jürgen Habermas, ‘the most celebrated of the successors of the Frankfurt School’, had elaborated a theory which represented a ‘development away from the Marxist positions of the founders of the School’. Habermas claimed to re-state what was valid in Marx in terms of a more general theory of social domination and communication, drawing on both linguistics and psychoanalysis. The directly political pronouncements made by Habermas in the late sixties aroused even more controversy than his theoretical programme for modernizing Marxism and seemed to place him squarely on the right wing of the latter-day exponents of critical theory. Thus he warned that some trends in the student movement could develop in the direction of a ‘left fascism’ and that the violence of the anti-Shah demonstrations in West Germany would only encourage a strengthening of the repressive character of the state. While many were radicalized by the sixties it seemed that Habermas was not. Today received opinion is dominated by the right but Habermas has again gone against the stream.
The interview with Habermas which we publish here suggests that he has not been caught up in the rightwards movement of much of the left intelligentsia in Europe in recent years. The interview was conducted by Rinascita, the weekly journal of the Italian Communist Party (pci). Speaking as a Marxist sociologist, Habermas explains the current wave of militant neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism as in part a product of the generalized recession of the seventies and the resultant disarray of the institutions of the Keynesian welfare state. He contrasts the complex malaise of the seventies with the economic character of previous capitalist crises, and urges the left to ensure that its proposals have a direct purchase on the manifestations of the crisis of capitalist social relations as this is experienced, with all its ‘secondary dysfunctions’, by the mass of the population. Habermas warns that the pci itself risks being sucked into the repressive involution of Italian bourgeois society. He casts doubt on what he sees as Foucault’s simplistic and undialectical conception of the mechanisms of normalization and integration of the underlying population of the capitalist countries; contemptuously rejects the anti-Marxist notions of the ‘New Philosophers’; and calmly assesses the attempt by terrorist groups to convert politics into a means of personal or aesthetic self-expression in the context of the increasingly hollow and administered consensus of the political establishment. Taken as a whole Habermas’s analysis is still quite distant from that which revolutionary socialists would make. Sometimes Habermas seems to extrapolate unduly from the experience of the Bundesrepublik to other capitalist social formations; as Gunter Minnerup has argued in nlr 98, however, the configuration of bourgeois power in West Germany is characterized by many uniquely favourable circumstances. But Habermas’s thought, developing in the unpropitious environment of the Berufsverbot and a largely passive labour movement, displays intellectual integrity and has something of value to offer to socialists who seek to understand the novel features of capitalist crisis today.