Speaking of Habermas

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Feb 25 08:02:40 MST 2001

Prospect Magazine, March 2001

Portrait: Jürgen Habermas

Germany's most celebrated living philosopher is a mentor to the 1968
radicals now in power--and especially to Joschka Fischer, the foreign
minister. Did he help them change the system or accept it?

By Jan-Werner Müller

So has Habermas become a mainstream figure? He always rejected the "total
critique" of the left intellectuals in the Weimar period which helped to
undermine democracy. And contrary to what critics on the left say he was
always primarily interested in democracy, not distribution. His defence of
equality was about ensuring the preconditions of rational political
debate--not social equality as such. It is quite in keeping with his
intellectual evolution that he should, unlike Guenter Grass, accept German
unification and the Berlin republic. That does not make him an Anglo-Saxon
liberal; politics, for Habermas, still has a transformative, redemptive
quality. To many he remains a model of the engaged, critical intellectual
(even though he never appears on television).

None the less, there is a legitimate debate among philosophers about
whether Habermas represents the continuation or abandonment of critical
theory. Certainly, it is hard to see how his theory of communication
challenges the status quo. Similarly, there is plenty of anguished debate
on the German left about whether Fischer as foreign minister represents a
capitulation to the US global system or the injection of 1968-er radicalism
into the citadels of power.

Against the left in most of Europe, Fischer defended the Nato bombing of
Serbia (as did Habermas in a more qualified way) on the grounds that it was
a German duty to prevent ethnic cleansing. And even Fischer's federalist
stance on the EU is likely to disappoint true believers. (Asked in London
recently whether he would support an EU-wide election for the president of
the EU commission as part of the 2004 constitutional settlement, Fischer
said no.) By the same token, the frequent references to Habermas in Fischer
speeches functions both as a signal of his radicalism to the Greens and a
reassurance to others of his commitment to the west.

It is possible that Fischer could yet show a more radical face, in the
National Missile Defence debate for example. But surely the
Habermas/Fischer story is substantially about making peace with Germany's
liberal democracy. Habermas's constitutional patriotism has helped the
radical 1968-ers--mostly no more than liberal social democrats today--to
come to terms with their country, to have the old Bundesrepublik without
the nightmare of Deutschland. For anyone who recalls the tension of the
terrorism-ridden 1970s that is no small thing. And for that alone Habermas
should be regarded as a great democratic intellectual and a German national

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Louis Proyect
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