Why Jürgen Habermas Disappeared
The German philosopher was one of the 20th century’s most influential public intellectuals. But 21st-century politics has cut him adrift.
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Jürgen Habermas may be the foremost intellectual in Europe. Since the 1960s his scholarship has set research agendas in philosophy, sociology, and history, while his newspaper articles and interviews have steered public debates on topics from the memory of the Holocaust to the Iraq War. He may also be the foremost intellectual of Europe, advocating for the continent’s economic and political integration.
In recent years, as that integration has stalled, one might have expected Habermas’s public interventions to gain in urgency. Instead, the opposite has happened: Although he has been as philosophically and politically productive as ever, his work has seemed to lose its relevance. Political developments against which he has struggled for decades, from populist nationalism to the erosion of the welfare state, seem more intractable than ever, while problems on which his political theory has little purchase, such as the growing influence within Europe of an illiberal and undemocratic China, appear ever more pressing. Still eminent in the academy but increasingly marginal outside it, the theorist best known for his notion of the “public sphere,” in which intellectuals influence politics by shaping public opinion, risks becoming the most compelling counterexample to his own ideal.
Habermas’s scholarly work and political commitments are held together by a worldview that expands on the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Yet, since the beginning of his career, Habermas has been shadowed by doubts about whether this vision can apply to politics. He has cast about for cultural resources, from the heritage of the French Revolution to the power of indignation, to generate a popular will in support of his program.
Since the turn of the century, this search has led Habermas to reconsider religion—to be more specific, Western Christianity—as a possible ally. Culminating in his recent Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (Another History of Philosophy, 2019), which has not yet been translated into English, his turn to religion is best understood as yet another attempt to overcome an insuperable contradiction at the very foundation of his philosophical project.
The British historian Perry Anderson once defined the task of Marxism after the collapse of hopes for a proletarian revolution as the “search for subjective agencies” capable of overturning capitalism. Habermas’s growing irrelevance suggests that European liberalism has mistakenly committed itself to a similar project of trying to find volunteers for its predetermined goals—and that this project may come to the same bitter end as communist aspirations. His decline as a public intellectual is more than the product of changing cultural trends or unfortunate circumstances that have thwarted some of his cherished causes. It represents the potential exhaustion of the sort of politics that his career embodies.
In his first major book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas already positioned himself as Kant’s heir. As he saw it, Kant had articulated a system of morality in which all human beings should be treated as free and equal. Kant argued that this system is immanent in the structure of rational thought. All human beings, insofar as we think, are capable of becoming “autonomous” moral agents, recognizing independently that the “moral law” should apply to everyone. From this basis, Kant claimed that liberalism, a political and economic regime founded on the recognition of universal rights ensuring freedom and equality, corresponds to human nature—and that its global spread is the trajectory of history.
Inspired by Kant, Habermas nevertheless recognized several problems in his thought. Kant’s concept of autonomy seemed tainted by a defense of laissez-faire capitalism. People cannot really be autonomous, Habermas countered, unless they have a material basis for living independently. In the modern era, this means that they need the support of a welfare state. Since an expansive government, however, can undermine the independence of its citizens, it is imperative that the latter influence decision-making through voting and debate in the “public sphere.” Only with economic security and political participation can individuals see themselves and others as free and equal.
In the following decades, Habermas devoted his scholarly energies to reconstructing Kant’s account of the moral law, which appears to him as implicit in interpersonal communication rather than, as Kant had it, private thought. According to Habermas, whenever one person speaks with another, this person makes claims about what is true and gives what they hope the other person will take to be good reasons for accepting it. Although we often deceive each other, every conversation is premised on the possibility that human beings can come to an agreement guided by reason, without force or fraud.
As Habermas put it in his 1965 lecture “Knowledge and Interests,” every statement that we make to another person is a “foreshadowing of the right kind of life” (one based on autonomy) and a political demand that we work toward a society in which “communication can become, for everyone and with everyone, dialogue free of domination.”
But there is a tension in this theory. Habermas noted in the Public Sphere that Kant claimed that history would bring about a “cosmopolitan order … under which human beings could really get their right.” But, behind Kant’s “official” teaching, Habermas argued, must stand an “unofficial,” esoteric doctrine, in which instead of waiting for the end of history, “politics had first to push” its way there. In order to work effectively toward the goal of autonomy for all, political action would have to be directed by a collective “will,” shaped by intellectuals “giving guidance to the public.” This “unofficial” Kantian doctrine has been the banner under which Habermas has worked as an intellectual, trying to rally Europeans to the goal of autonomy.
Since the 1970s, Habermas has been concerned by two obstacles to this agenda. The first of these is economic. After the crisis caused by the oil shocks, Habermas came to believe that Europe’s nation-states no longer weigh enough in the balance of the global economy to protect the redistributive policies that make autonomy meaningful for ordinary people. In a globalizing economy, he has warned repeatedly, “Keynesianism in one country” is no longer possible. The welfare state must be recreated at a continental scale.
Habermas’s second problem concerns the collective “will” that is supposed to work toward autonomy. In Towards a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism (1975), he began to argue that such a will could not be located in any of the historical identities—class, religion, nation—that have organized European politics. Rather it should be found in a new kind of “collective identity” that would “no longer be anchored in a backward glance.” This new identity must be, in fact, not only European but universal, available to every human being without exclusion. Just as social democracy had to be extended from particular countries to a united continent, Europeans had to reimagine themselves as members of a common humanity.
This call for a collective identity that includes potentially everyone was a challenge the ideas of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the Nazi and Catholic political theorist who influenced the thought of Hitler’s regime and postwar West German conservatism. Schmitt argued that politics is founded on a “friend-enemy distinction” defining an in-group against a threatening out-group. He further claimed that modern politics is dominated by concepts derived from Christian tradition—a point, he insisted, that applies even to supposedly rational Kantians like Habermas. There can be no viable form of collective identity, Schmitt suggests, without powerful and potentially dangerous shared emotions and an aura of the sacred.
Habermas has often rejected Schmitt’s “clerico-fascist” ideas, with particular fervor in a 2011 article on Schmitt’s concept of the “The Political.” There he argued that liberal democracies neither have nor require a “religious aura.” They are based on “respect for the inviolability of human dignity,” which, he maintained, is a secular concept independent of any “friend-enemy” distinction. Appeals to collective will should be made on this rational, inclusive basis—or none at all.
Throughout his interventions in European politics, however, Habermas has been unable to stick to this formula. He has often called on Europeans to generate a collective will around a shared past, powerful emotions, and values of heroism and sacrifice, which border on the irrational and quasi-religious forces Schmitt saw as essential to politics. These injunctions, at odds with his own theoretical commitments, have been less than coherent intellectually and less than successful politically. They reveal the inadequacy of what Habermas has promoted since the 1980s as the “collective identity” to replace class, religion, and nation for Europe: “constitutional patriotism.”
Habermas developed the concept of “constitutional patriotism” during the Historikerstreit (“historians’ dispute”) of the late 1980s. During this period, West German conservative politicians and historians argued that their fellow citizens nursed a morbid sense of shared guilt over the crimes of the Nazi regime. Thinkers like Ernst Nolte insisted that Germans must develop a more positive national identity. These appeals often descended into downplaying the Holocaust, shifting the focus to German victims of Soviet reprisals, and they accelerated a rightward shift in the political culture.
Habermas was the most vocal opponent of this trend, and he cemented his status as a leading figure of the German center-left. Breaking through debates over historical guilt, he argued that his countrymen ought to shift their attention, and their affection, to the West German Constitution of 1949 and the broader European liberal democratic tradition on which it was based. They should find their identity in a “constitutional patriotism” potentially open to all human beings, rather than in positive or negative feelings about their national history.
While the Historikerstreit positioned Habermas as the champion of a post-national, progressive West Germany, he overplayed his hand. As the East German government collapsed in 1989, he insisted that “constitutional patriotism” meant that German reunification must not proceed on the basis of national identity. Rather, citizens from the former communist state should join West Germans to draft a new constitution, so that all could feel united by agreed-upon civic values, rather than their unchosen ethnic heritage. This proposal found little support, a failure that bitterly disappointed Habermas. In an interview given in 1993 (in The Past as Future), he complained that post-reunification German politics was based “vague appeals to national feeling” instead of constitutional values.
Rather than deciding that constitutional patriotism could not serve as the sort of collective identity his Kantian politics required, Habermas shifted focus from Germany to Europe. Since the days of the Historikerstreit, he has argued that Europeans should see themselves as united by the legacy of the French Revolution and should formalize their identity by creating a new constitution for a supernational European state, one that would transcend economic and legal integration to create a democratic policy. This decadeslong campaign seems from the perspective of the present like a larger-scale version of his unsuccessful intervention in German reunification. Both have been dogged not only by the resistance of public opinion and political elites, but also by an incoherent view of history.
While his ideal of collective identity seems to require Europeans to reject what he once dismissed as the “backward glance,” Habermas appeals to the legacy of the French Revolution in terms that echo the radical nationalism of 1789. In an essay written on the eve of its bicentennial (“Popular Sovereignty as Procedure”), he argued that what had begun with the fall of the Bastille was not over, “[r]ather it is a project we must carry forward in the consciousness of a revolution both permanent and quotidian.” The “ideals of 1789” must inspire passionate identification and deliberate action in the present. Otherwise, they “will not take root in our souls.”
With such language, Habermas spoke the language of the revolution’s leaders, who had tried to make the values of human rights and democracy part of what they called moeurs, or social practices and emotional experiences. Their efforts could be violent and illiberal. Creating a new civic religion centered on the rights of individuals and a passionate commitment to the nation led, for example, to the persecution of Catholics.
Although he has shied away from the revolution’s violence, Habermas has often described 1789 as the genesis of modern Europe and argued that a sense of connection to such historical events is vital to the “constitutional patriotism” he favors. In a 2001 talk at Washington University (“On Law and Disagreement”), he said that “citizens must see themselves as heirs to a founding generation, carrying on with the common project.”
It is by no means obvious, however, that citizens of contemporary Western democracies see themselves as heirs of the revolution. As Habermas noted, European countries today are receiving more and more non-European immigrants with different worldviews, creating “divided societies” without a “strong value consensus.” It is doubtful whether young people in Europe today will learn to think of themselves as the heirs of 1789 if they do not come to identify with a culture, nation, or civilization that transmits this revolutionary heritage to them.
In an increasingly diverse Europe, ties of symbolic filiation are fraying. As Habermas’s own emotionally laden rhetoric of inheritances, legacies, and heirs suggests, the abstract civic ideals written into a constitution have meaning for citizens only to the extent that the latter already feel themselves to be part of a community to whom those ideals are addressed. So Habermas’s references to 1789 as a point of identification for Europeans contradict his own political theory—and Europe’s social realities.
No more coherent are his frequent appeals to the collective emotion of “indignation,” which he imagines all of us feel when human dignity is violated. The idea of indignation allows Habermas to imagine collective political action might be possible in the absence of traditional identities. In 1992, for example, after incidents of violence against Turkish immigrants in Germany were answered with mass protests, Habermas wrote to Die Zeit in support of demonstrators’ post-nationalist “indignation” on behalf of newcomers.
But indignation does not necessarily serve liberal, cosmopolitan ends. In a 1963 article in Merkur magazine, Habermas denounced the West German state’s campaign of repression against homosexual Germans, which he saw as fueled by homophobic “moral indignation.” As he insisted that people’s private sexual practices should be protected from the indignation of their fellow citizens, however, he argued that “not all indignation leads to witch-hunts” and that “political enlightenment also requires moral motivations.” But in the absence of shared values about the sorts of practices that our feelings about “human dignity” commit us to defend, indignation carries the risk of degenerating into a just such “witch hunts”—or into impotent moralizing.
The latter was the tone that Habermas struck during the Iraq War, castigating the George W. Bush administration for its violations of international law. He saved his most strident criticisms, however, for European leaders, who were unable to develop a united foreign policy as a counterweight to U.S. power. In a 2003 open letter (“February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together”), he deplored this “shipwreck.” Habermas was to some extent concerned by the split between the historic member states of the European Union and the new members from Eastern Europe, which generally fell into line behind the United States. But he was most animated by the failure of Germany, France, and Italy to turn their diplomatic corps’ outrage over U.S. policy into something more substantive. He was also, however, embarrassed and compromised by his own previous support for NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in Serbia, which had begun without authorization from the United Nations. He struggled to explain why that apparent breach of international law had been acceptable, while U.S. action in Iraq was not.
Habermas found signs of hope, however, in the “power of feelings” that had inspired millions of Europeans to protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But this indignation could not give force to European foreign policy. Without the orientation provided by shared values and a common identity, popular feelings lack the sustained motivating power to shape elites’ behavior. And the United States is hardly Europe’s worst problem. In recent years, as Russia and China have made their influence felt in Europe, often exploiting the same divisions between Western and Eastern countries on which the Bush administration played, neither the threat of division nor popular disgust for Moscow’s and Beijing’s human rights abuses has seemed effective at moving Europe’s leaders toward a united foreign policy.
The legacy of 1789 and the feeling of indignation are not sufficient to produce the collective will that Habermas sees as essential to the realization of the Kantian ideal. In moments of frustration with the halting progress toward European integration, he seems to recognize this inadequacy, and he calls upon supplementary virtues of “heroism” and “sacrifice.”
However, there is no place for these values in Habermas’s theory. Indeed, he often speaks of them with contempt, associating them with the worst excesses of nationalism. In a characteristic moment, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, he scoffed at Americans’ references to first responders as “heroes.” The “connotations” of heroism, he warned, evoke troubling political memories for a German. Quoting Bertolt Brecht, he concluded, “Unhappy is the country that needs heroes.”
Habermas did not recall that in The Inclusion of the Other (1996) he had demanded European leaders make a “heroic effort,” sacrificing their national identities and short-term interests for an integrated supernational polity. Later, in his On the Constitution of Europe (2011) he again summoned Europe’s “frightened” elites to show “courage” and bemoaned their inability to deepen the European Union’s cohesion. Europe is indeed “unhappy” if its future depends on intellectuals’ ability to coax elites into living up to values of heroism that they themselves despise.
The legacy of the French Revolution, mass emotion, and virtuous elites are only some of the incoherent and ineffective cultural resources that Habermas has drawn on in support of his Kantian political ideal. Such resources are supposed to motivate European citizens to forge a common will, while enabling them to break with historical forms of collective identity. None of them, however, seem to function in the absence of the traditions that Habermas intends them to replace. In an implicit admission of this failure, Habermas has turned in recent years to Christianity as another such resource.
In his recent Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie, Habermas argues—in a version Schmitt’s claims that he once vehemently rejected—that Christianity has been a historical source for many of liberalism’s core concepts. He insists that Christians today can contribute to the liberal project by “translating” Kantian imperatives into religious language and inspiring believers to advance liberal ends.
Much of Auch eine Geschichte can be seen as a quarrel with Schmitt, but also with the French sociologist of religion Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). The latter argued that politics is always underwritten by a sense of group identity generated in collective rituals through which individuals unite in a group defined by its allegiance to something “sacred.” A liberal democrat and Kantian like Habermas, Durkheim posited that human rights can only be cherished and defended by citizens who are united by a national identity indistinguishable in its intensity from religion.
Habermas notes that Durkheim called for the “renewal of solidarity” through emotion-generating collective rites, such as Bastille Day parades, in order to rescue liberalism from “the abyss of anomie,” or the decline of binding social norms. Yet, Habermas insists that while Durkheim’s ideas may have applied in ancient societies, they are not relevant today. His turn to religion will not go so far as to admit, as Schmitt and Durkheim do, that liberal democracy must itself be a kind of collective faith if it is to survive.
Habermas’s turn to religion is unlikely to offer a more successful prop for his “unofficial” Kantian politics than his previous appeals to 1789, indignation, and heroism. Even as he invokes Christianity as a means of evoking a collective will, Habermas continues to hold at arm’s length the idea that liberal democratic states must actively generate strong allegiances to a shared identity that is smaller than all of humanity. Instead of calling on the state to foster a form of patriotism more robust and less inclusive than Kant’s cosmopolitan ideal, Habermas appeals to religion, as he once appealed to history or emotion, to supply the willpower still absent in his own system. But the post-Reformation Christianity, filtered through Enlightenment philosophy, that he promotes as a resource for liberalism is already much more culturally specific and less inclusive than he acknowledges. Many Christian theologians, such as John Milbank, reject his instrumental conception of their tradition.
As Habermas reaches unconvincingly for Christianity as another stopgap in his search for a new form of post-national collective identity for Europe, Schmitt’s influence continues to grow. In a 1985 essay on Schmitt, Habermas asserted that his nemesis was unlikely to ever gain a wide readership the English-speaking world. Since the 1990s, however, Anglophone scholarship has been marked by a Schmitt revival, first led by figures on the left such as Chantal Mouffe, whose ideas have also exercised a great influence outside the academy, inspiring left-populist parties in Europe such as Podemos and La France Insoumise. More recently, right-wing imitators of Schmitt’s theologically inflected fascism, such as Adrian Vermeule, have risen to intellectual prominence, and perhaps soon to political influence.
More troublingly, Schmitt has become a major point of reference for leaders of the rising global power. China’s use of Schmittian theory to justify its recent crackdown in Hong Kong has been widely noted, but, as Gloria Davies warned in her 2007 article “Habermas in China,” if Schmitt has taken off in China, this is in part Habermas’s fault. Widely read in the 1990s and early 2000s by reform-minded intellectuals, Habermas sparked outrage when he seemed to violate his own cosmopolitan liberal theory by endorsing NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which infamously destroyed China’s embassy in Belgrade.
Habermas’s most widely read article in favor of airstrikes against Serbia, “Bestiality and Humanity,” was structured by claims that Slobodan Milosevic’s regime was committing crimes against humanity—and by an attack on Schmitt, who had dismissed the idea of crimes against humanity with the phrase, “humanity, bestiality.” Outraged Chinese intellectuals such as Zhang Rulun countered that by supporting the violation of Serbian sovereignty, Habermas was more like Schmitt than he realized. Zhang argued that Habermas had revealed Western liberals, for all their talk of “democratic procedure” and “dialogue,” had no more respect for international law than the “rogue” states they wanted to bomb.
Zhang has revealed a fact about Habermas he has often been at pains to conceal, if not escape: That behind his liberal veneer is an emotional and ultimately irrational heart. But what afflicts Habermas is less hypocrisy than self-denial—a lack of self-knowledge that has made it impossible to avoid a drift toward political irrelevance. What remains to be seen is whether the same is true of Western political culture writ large.