Habermas and the Fate of Democracy


William E. Scheuerman in Boston Review:

Germany’s defeat helped free Habermas from the provincial social climate. He listened to live radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials and, shocked by the horrors recounted, seems to have quickly grasped the criminal nature of the regime under which he had grown up. Revealingly perhaps, his academic interests shifted away from medicine, a more professionally secure field, to philosophy. His 1954 University of Bonn doctoral dissertation on the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling offers little evidence of Habermas’s growing radicalism, but his early journalistic pieces, published during the early and mid ‘50s in major German newspapers and intellectual journals, anticipate his life-long political concerns. Directed against right-wing intellectuals (for example, Heidegger), they criticize an older generation for failing to take democracy seriously—that “magic word,” according to Habermas, that brought together otherwise disparate voices within his own postwar generation who sought a clean break from Nazism.

Because Habermas took the magic word of democracy so seriously, he found himself disenchanted not only with established conservative intellectuals but also political elites who preferred to keep their mouths shut about their Nazi entanglements, and for whom Germany’s new liberal order was primarily about stability and security, not democratic self-government. Dictatorship and the racism that motored it still haunted his country. Democracy was not a fortunate historical inheritance one could simply take up, but instead an unfinished project. As he has more recently claimed, democracy represents the surviving “remnant of utopia”: only democracy is “capable of hacking through the Gordian knots of otherwise insoluble problems.” Thus his life-long intellectual project of trying to understand democracy’s promise and possibilities.

More here.