A Marx revival seems to be under way, predating the current disarray on Wall Street, even though no clear-cut political options yet seem to propose themselves. Sensible opportunists have welcomed any sign of sympathy for Marxian positions, without wanting to alienate the new converts (or returning fellow-travellers). The big ideological issues—anarchism, the party, economic planning, social classes—are still mainly avoided, on the grounds that they remind too many people of Communist propaganda. Such a reminder is unwanted, not so much because it is accompanied by the memory of deaths and violence (memory is fragile in postmodernity) as simply and less dramatically because such topics now appear boring.
On the face of it, then, it does not seem plausible to welcome a book which, somewhat in the Althusserian vein of yesteryear, implacably denounces the idealistic deviations and doctrinal errors, the ideological misappropriations and misguided revisions of thinkers widely supposed to have some Marxian pedigree or relevance for younger would-be Marxists today. Christoph Henning’s Philosophie nach Marx is a comprehensive, six-hundred page indictment of everyone from Kautsky to present-day left liberals of Habermasian or Rawlsian stripe, and it is well worth standing up to its innumerable provocations. It is a tireless catalogue of what I will call Marx-avoidance, which for all its unremitting zeal remains oddly non-partisan. Henning does not seem to speak from any easily identifiable political or ideological position, although his philosophical bias would seem to be a kind of Wittgensteinian Kantianism, appropriate enough for this intellectual operation.
The reader needs to be warned, however, that the word ‘theory’, now generally taken, at least in the West, to signify post-structuralism or Frankfurt School Hegelianism and quizzed for its exhaustion or demise, or attacked for its perniciously elitist abstraction, is used quite differently here, as a term for Marx’s work itself, whose object according to Henning was bürgerliche Gesellschaft—by which he means not civil society (that fatigued war-horse to which left liberals and radical democrats alike still appeal), but rather capitalism as such: a system to be confronted in its totality, rather than from any purely political or philosophical, or even from any narrowly economic, perspective. Henning’s emphasis, however, remains focused on Marx’s work itself, whose ‘content and character have rarely been adequately grasped either by its enemies or its defenders’. This perspective will occasionally remind us of Horkheimer’s plaintive confession: ‘I pledge allegiance to critical theory; that means that I can tell what is false, but cannot define what is correct’. But such frankness, hoping to convert seeming weakness into aggressive counter-attack, does not exempt the Frankfurt School from the force of Henning’s critical juggernaut; on the contrary, it will become one of its principal targets.
Henning’s critical panorama divides into two unequal segments: the first covers the fate of ‘Marxism’ or Marxist theory from the death of Marx to the October Revolution. This is familiar ground, but Henning’s analysis of the respective shortcomings of social-democratic and communist theory has interesting new things to tell us. The second and longer part of Philosophie nach Marx sets out from the ‘social philosophy’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and brings us up to the present, with a wide-angle view of its successors today, where Henning distinguishes four dominant schools: Habermas, Rawls, normative ‘economic ethics’ and neo-pragmatism. But although his review of all this is roughly chronological, it avoids any purely historical account by organizing its material around nine systematic Kernpunkte or ‘key points’—an awkward formula which might better have been rendered as Althusserian problématiques, or versions of the medieval ‘crux’ around which debates traditionally revolved, pressing on an unresolved conceptual dilemma.
This is an excellent framework, but before we outline it, the limits of Henning’s enterprise need to be indicated. For one thing, the social philosophy canvassed in its second part is, with the exception of Rawls, exclusively German. It is true, of course, that the only foreign intellectual scene with which English-speaking intellectuals are generally familiar, in its broad outlines and principal players, is French. The richness of Italian or German intellectual life is mostly a closed book to them, with the exception of a few well-known stars, who collaborate with such provincialism by reorienting their footnotes and references around an Anglophone sociology or philosophy that has become hegemonic. Here the theoretically minded reader will miss discussions of Foucault and Derrida, Deleuze and Badiou, Agamben and Negri, Rorty and Giddens. This is a matter for regret, since it would have been good to have a review of these thinkers in the Henning manner, which, however truly damaging or unremittingly negative, is never basely partisan in the fashion of Althusserian denunciations of old (or even of the perhaps still related anti-theoretical inquisitions and denunciations of the present).
Particularly in the area of sociology, on the other hand, the English-language reader will discover unfamiliar references: the philosopher Rudolf Eucken (1846–1926), for example, or René Koenig (1906–92), founder of the Cologne school of sociology, whose critique of sociological discourse is fundamental for Henning. But they will readily imagine their own equivalents, for the debates are everywhere analogous. (One could think of such transpositions as a literary historian might of the unfamiliar formal patterns of a history of music or the visual arts, whose very non-translatability may yield insight into the dynamics of comparable but dissimilar historical processes.) In any case the names of Kautsky and Habermas, or Heidegger and Horkheimer, are central enough in the history of ideas to warrant attention in their own contexts, however local these may seem to a parochially Anglophone ‘West’.
Henning’s handling of the concept of social philosophy also needs a gloss. It includes everything from straightforward political and economic manifestos of the early years of revolutionary or parliamentary Marxism, through the sociology of Weber and Luhmann, all the way to outright (or ‘pure’) philosophy, in Heidegger and Adorno, since the latter is as implicitly political and social as the former is philosophical. Indeed the book’s basic argument is that social and political analyses have been sapped and vitiated by their ‘ontologization’, that is to say, by their translation and above all sublimation into purely philosophical arguments and issues. This is Henning’s version of the more frequent and vulgar reproach of ‘idealism’, which has become something of a ritual insult. Henning does seem to have a philosophical basis for his own bias against philosophy; it is, as has been suggested, a discreet Wittgensteinian Kantianism. In short, the corpus will consist of the social sciences, as they impinge on philosophy (or at least on thought), and philosophy and its contemporary acolyte theories, as these encroach on the social sciences. If the latter seem to have a pronouncedly philosophical cast, is this to be attributed to German intellectual traditions antithetical to either British empiricism or a younger American pragmatism? If so, that would be yet another reason to work through these unfamiliar German materials.