In a country where anniversaries are drawn-out affairs, the 90th birthday of the leading German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas was not going to pass unmarked. The newspaper Die Zeit dedicated a supplement to accolades; cultural ministers brushed up on his backlist. His lecture at Goethe University Frankfurt in June was delivered in front of as many as 3,000 people. It brought back memories for the older audience members: the philosopher made his name there as Theodor Adorno’s assistant, sculpting his arguments in front of students who had been shorn of any utopian commitments by the Second World War – or, later, against students who took their utopian visions beyond what he thought was called for.
Still agile at the lectern, his black sneakers crossing back and forth, switching between two pairs of spectacles, Habermas did not disappoint his audience. Did his audience disappoint him? Perhaps. Instead of the torrents of applause, you sensed he would have preferred a bright undergraduate to have stood up and asked a question. The most apposite birthday gift may have been delivered by Habermas’s publishing house, Suhrkamp Verlag, which published a richly detailed study of his early thought by a young historian born in the GDR.
Like Kant, Habermas believes in the liberating capacity of reason; that its purpose is to help us arrive at ways of living together better. When people discuss together, in conditions free of domination, there is an assumption that it is possible to reach a consensus, by what Habermas calls “the pressureless pressure of the better argument”. That almost no arguments in real life are actually like this is part of Habermas’s point: we know that some conversations approach these conditions more than others, and only in conversations more or less free of coercion is any true agreement possible.
Like Hegel, Habermas has an unusually elaborate “philosophy of history” for a liberal. He believes that history, through our own use of reason within it, is moving in a certain direction, though it lacks a definable terminus. The direction is post-national, towards a world economy defined by social democratic characteristics. Habermas’s way of thinking about rationality as both a causal agent in world affairs and a way of interpreting causal changes has seemed untenable to some of his readers.
Finally, like Marx, Habermas believes that the chief impediments to our free use of reason are forces of domination associated with the latest version of capitalism, which closes the gap between speech and power and renders the very idea of the “general interest” unthinkable.
Outside Germany, Habermas has received his most sympathetic hearing in the US, where many of his most creative interpreters, including Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser and Richard Rorty, have lived and taught. In Britain, by contrast, there appears to be an ongoing sweepstake to see who can write the most flippant piece about him. Two claims are typically hurled his way: that his prose is unreadably abstract, and that his career has faithfully reflected the evolution of West Germany, and now, the unified Federal Republic.
Neither of these is true. Habermas has written some of the finest polemical prose in postwar Germany (vindication may only come when the 12 volumes of his Kleine Politische Schriften are published in English). The familiarity that any half-aware graduate of a German gymnasium school has for Habermas’s political concepts – from “constitutional patriotism” to “ideal speech situation” – makes his position in European letters loom much larger than an academy-bounded figure such as the American philosopher John Rawls.
Habermas was born in Düsseldorf in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. His father was a Nazi party member and, like Günter Grass and many in his generation, Habermas served in the Hitler Youth. Not a 1968er, but a 1945er, Habermas was among the first young Germans for whom the war provided a conversion experience away from nationalism. He later believed this re-education process had made Germany uniquely suitable for a vanguard role in a post-nationalist political project.
It is difficult today to appreciate how courageous Habermas was at the time. He saw signs of right-wing survival and resurgence all around him: in the American rearmament of Germany and anti-communist purging of universities. His first piece of public writing condemned the cynicism in Gottfried Benn’s expressionist poetry. Still in his twenties, he attacked Heidegger for republishing a work from the Nazi period without considering his contribution to and implication in the war. In the culture war against atavistic Nazism, Habermas became a hero in the student movement before it radicalised beyond his taste.
Over the years some of his positions have been more open to question: he was against the founding of a Green Party in West Germany (he thought either its reformist wing or its fundamentalist wing would win out and neutralise the party’s social value) and he was tepid towards reunification (he thought West Germany would use the opportunity to cement its political-economic mode, not subject it to introspection).
Today Habermas has put all his world-historical chips on the EU. In a recent series of debates with Wolfgang Streeck, Habermas made some questionable pronouncements. He has referred to European monetary union as the “cunning of economic reason” for providing the technological bedrock required for a global society. He described Emmanuel Macron as someone who “stands out above the European leadership because he assesses each current issue from a broader perspective and is therefore not simply reactive”. Whether that perspective is the vantage point of global capital or that of the future of humanity seems at the very least an open question.
But Habermas is right to think that any retreat by the left to the fortress of the nation-state is likely to be doubly disappointed: not only by the populist right, for whom the nation has always been a cudgel against others, but also by the capacity of the capitalist class to readjust to the new nationalism.
At the after-party on the roof deck of one of the buildings at the University of Frankfurt the symbolism was hard to miss. The Bundesbank flanked one side of the building in the distance, the Goldman Sachs building the other. In between, Habermas sat crunched up in a chair with his wife, receiving guests from around the world.
Marx, borrowing from Hamlet, had the “old mole” of revolution; Hegel the owl of Minerva that only flies at dusk. On the podium Habermas ended his speech with an image that instantly seemed canonical. “The Mole of Reason,” he said, “is blind only in the sense that it can detect the resistance of an unsolved problem, without knowing whether there will be a solution; but it is stubborn enough to press on ahead in the underground passages.”
Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Max Planck Society, Göttingen