The Specter of Democracy

The Specter of Democracy: What Marx and Marxists Haven't Understood and Why

Dick Howard
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/howa12484
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Specter of Democracy
    Book Description:

    In this rethinking of Marxism and its blind spots, Dick Howard argues that the collapse of European communism in 1989 should not be identified with a victory for capitalism and makes possible a wholesale reevaluation of democratic politics in the U.S. and abroad. The author turns to the American and French Revolutions to uncover what was truly "revolutionary" about those events, arguing that two distinct styles of democratic life emerged, the implications of which were misinterpreted in light of the rise of communism.

    Howard uses a critical rereading of Marx as a theorist of democracy to offer his audience a new way to think about this political ideal. He argues that it is democracy, rather than Marxism, that is radical and revolutionary, and that Marx could have seen this but did not. In Part I, Howard explores the attraction Marxism held for intellectuals, particularly French intellectuals, and he demonstrates how the critique of totalitarianism from a Marxist viewpoint allowed these intellectuals to see the radical nature of democracy. Part II examines two hundred years of democratic political life -- comparing America's experience as a democracy to that of France. Part III offers a rethinking of Marx's contribution to democratic politics. Howard concludes that Marx was attempting a "philosophy by other means," and that paradoxically, just because he was such an astute philosopher, Marx was unable to see the radical political implications of his own analyses. The philosophically justified "revolution" turns out to be the basis of an anti-politics whose end was foreshadowed by the fall of European communism in 1989.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50522-2
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: Why Should We, and How Should We, Reclaim Marx?
    (pp. vii-xx)

    Imagine that Karl Marx had sat down in 1847 and written, “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of democracy.” Would The Communist Manifesto that he published in February 1848 read so very differently from the now classic text that has been said to have changed the world? Recall some of the ringing phrases from Marx’s description of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist world it created. He portrays the bourgeoisie as “revolutionary” because it has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” It has “stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored,” and “torn away...

  4. PART 1. Marxism and the Intellectuals
    • CHAPTER 1 Marxism in the Postcommunist World
      (pp. 3-23)

      If we could agree on what “Marxism” is—or was—then the task of evaluating its possible future in the post–cold war world would be relatively simple and noncontroversial. But there is no agreed definition of Marxism. There used to be something more or less official called Marxism-Leninism, and, as opposed to it, there was something called Western Marxism, which had its roots in the Hegelian and Weberian rereading of Marx that was initiated by Georg Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923), developed by the Frankfurt School’s program of critical theory, and thematized in Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Can French Intellectuals Escape Marxism?
      (pp. 24-38)

      Although the title of this chapter poses a question, and its analysis will be descriptive, the conclusion is prescriptive. I will offer an argument that explains historically, sociologically, and philosophically the attraction of Marxism in France, the intellectual options that choice entails for those whom I broadly term “communist” (following Marx’s own description in The Communist Manifesto), and the strength and weaknesses of their position.¹ Finally, I will point to some indices of the emergence of another intellectual style, one that I find more attractive and have labeled elsewhere a “politics of judgment,”² to which I will return later in...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Frankfurt School and the Transformation of Critical Theory into Cultural Theory
      (pp. 39-50)

      The appeal of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory to a young leftist of the late 1960 s was based on a paradox expressed in the practice of both critical theory and the leftist. On the one hand, modern capitalist society seemed able to co-opt protest by integrating it into the dynamics of competitive business, creating a demand for the newest, most advanced, and most risqué products (a trend that continues today as cultural rebellion has became the motor of consumer society). On the other hand, that society was characterized by a spirit of revolt against its “one-dimensional” reduction of all...

    • CHAPTER 4 Habermas’s Reorientation of Critical Theory Toward Democratic Theory
      (pp. 51-62)

      Despite Max Horkheimer’s fear that he was “too left-wing” to inherit the legacy of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas has modernized the tradition of critical theory just as the original Frankfurters sought to modernize Marxism: by criticizing and thereby reaffirming in his own way the premises from which the founders began. This achievement has not always been understood by his audience, despite a remarkable series of successes, each one crowned by a theoretical work of synthetic breadth and theoretical depth. Typical was the case of the book that was his Habilitationsschrift in 1962, Structural Change of the Public Sphere,¹ which...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Anticommunist Marxism of Socialisme ou Barbarie
      (pp. 63-70)

      The journal Socialisme ou Barbarie came to the attention of a wider public only after some of the leaders of the May ’68 movement, especially Dany Cohn-Bendit, had explained its influence on them. The journal, like the political group that published it for sixteen years, during which forty issues were published—first bimonthly, then quarterly—placed itself explicitly out of the mainstream of organized left-wing politics. Only some three hundred copies of each issue were printed, and the journal finally ceased publication in 1965 after a final split within its ranks when its critical Marxism turned finally into a critique...

    • CHAPTER 6 Claude Lefort’s Passage from Revolutionary Theory to Political Theory
      (pp. 71-82)

      When he learned that I was to deliver the traditional laudatio when he was awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought by the city-state of Bremen in 1999, Claude Lefort reminded me jokingly that his work did not end with Socialisme et Barbarie.¹ It was easy to meet that request but harder to write the laudatio, which went through three radically different drafts. The trick is to explain the association of the recipient with the principles behind the award (in this case, with the political thought of Hannah Arendt; this was easy enough); then to explain the great worth...

    • CHAPTER 7 From Marx to Castoriadis, and from Castoriadis to Us
      (pp. 83-98)

      Some decry the sixties generation as hedonistic and blame it for the social laxity that has given us culture wars and increasingly conservative government. I remember it rather for the attempt to create the politics of a new left. That project, I have been arguing in this book, remains on the contemporary agenda. But in order to reclaim it, it is necessary to understand where it went astray and to see whether it can be reconstructed on another foundation. As it happens, this project coincides in many ways with Cornelius Castoriadis’s own political development. To illustrate the overlaps (without denying...

    • CHAPTER 8 From the Critique of Totalitarianism to the Politics of Democracy
      (pp. 99-136)

      Should a critique disappear when its object is no longer present? Although politicians and journalists still use the concepts of fascism and communism rhetorically, perhaps taking the precaution of adding a “neo-” to cover their embarrassment, nearly no one any longer admits adhering to either, and neither does anyone seriously think that they will return any time soon. But of course no one thinks that the Roman Empire—or the Roman republic—will return soon, which doesn’t prevent learning from those experiences. And there are those, still a minority, who believe that the only way to interpret the U.S. Constitution...

  5. Part 2. Republican Democracy or Democratic Republics
    • CHAPTER 9 The Burden of French History
      (pp. 139-172)

      Marx called France the political nation par excellence, as compared to economic England and philosophical Germany. But Marx arrived at his mature theory only after a stern critique of a “merely political” view of revolution. And some of his most important insights are developed in analyses of the failures of revolution in France. While Marx’s observation is insightful, the theoretical conclusions he drew from it are problematic. The monarchy in France was not absolute because it was all-powerful or arbitrary; its power came from the means by which it dominated all spheres of life, transforming an administrative and territorial entity...

    • CHAPTER 10 Intersecting Trajectories of Republicanism in France and the United States
      (pp. 173-196)

      Like many inherited historical concepts, republicanism has been understood differently in different contexts and at different times. This has resulted in confusion, polemic, and, most often, paradoxes that also have the benefit of adding depth and richness to the concept itself. So it is today. As used in France, republicanism refers to the political project that found its idealized representation in a vision of universal citizenship that is identified with the achievements of the Third Republic. In the United States, the concept designates the social community needed to provide a meaningful identity to the participants in a liberal polity organized...

    • CHAPTER 11 Reading U.S. History as Political
      (pp. 197-219)

      Historians correctly warn their political scientist friends against the danger of an overly present-centered reading of the stakes of politics. For example, the issues roiling French politics must be understood within the symbolic framework inaugurated by the rupture begun in 1789. Seemingly unrelated actions, whose motivation seems to depend only on simple self-interest, may acquire a meaning that their authors have not consciously intended. Similarly, German politics is framed by the symbolic context created by both Frederick the Great’s early legal codification of the Allgemeines Landgesetz and by the failure of the 1848 revolution to institute a liberal parliamentary regime...

    • CHAPTER 12 Fundamentalism and the American Exception
      (pp. 220-236)

      Despite the constitutional separation of church and state—which Jefferson considered his proudest achievement—religion has always played a role in American political life. And it has not always been the organized religious congregations that have been leaders in crossing the line that the Constitution tries to establish. Religion touches deeper; it affects the language through which people express themselves as well as their vision of the nation to which they belong. What is new in the last two decades is the rise of a religious right that has become an active voting bloc bringing into politics social and cultural...

  6. Part 3. Back to Marx?
    • CHAPTER 13 Philosophy by Other Means?
      (pp. 239-288)

      Paradoxically, after 1989 Marx’s political philosophy can be read not only as philosophical but also as political. If Marxism is not (in Sartre’s famous phrase) the “unsurpassable horizon of our times,” it remains a rigorous confrontation with modernity and a challenging attempt to understand its novelty.¹ This is because, despite Marx’s intention to provide a theory of the revolutionary proletariat that would serve for the praxis of that world historical agent, he was and continued to be a philosopher; despite his critique(s) of idealism, Marx remained under its spell. Indeed, this philosophical intention ultimately vitiates his attempt to surpass philosophy...

  7. Notes Unless otherwise specified, all translations are mine.
    (pp. 289-334)
  8. Index
    (pp. 335-356)