I read a 500-page biography of Jürgen Habermas so you don't have to. Actually, it's quite a good read, better than I feared. There were times when I actually couldn't put it down, and I'm not a fan of biographies generally. I was read this tome to review for Local Government Studies. Given the book was so long, I asked the book reviews editor to give me the equivalent of two reviews, but he didn't think it was of sufficient interest to the readers of LGS to warrant the full version so it got brutally edited down to 800 words. I don't mind, this was what we agreed when I went in to write it. The shorter version will be published soon, and in the mean time, you can read the 1,600-word version.
Habermas: A Biography
Stefan Müller-Doohm (tr. Daniel Steuer)
Polity Press (Cambridge)
As an undergraduate studying history, a Professor was attempting to explain Habermas’ thesis in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in a lecture I was attending. They described how, like all German intellectuals, Habermas “dived in deeper, and came out muddier”. For many in the English-speaking academic world, this is one caricature they hold; for others Habermas is seen as an irrelevance, with his utopian vision of uncorrupted discourse being empirically disproved by a “post-truth” world of discursive conflict. Yet, when we look at the emphasis put on deliberation in governance reforms (the latest trend being co-production) or the campaigns for rational discourse in society to counter “fake news”, arguably, we are seeing the enduring impact of Habermas’ philosophical and political project, and his ever greater relevance in the present day.
Stefan Müller-Doohm’s biography of Habermas, now translated into English, gives an incredibly rich insight into Habermas’ intellectual project, but more importantly the personal drive behind it. Born in 1929, and growing up in the west German town of Gummersbach, Habermas’ cleft palate marked him out as different all his life. From 1933 this difference became of greater importance as it marked Habermas as a “degenerate” within the Nazi regime. However, like many of his generation, he was a member of the Hitler Youth, and trained as a first-aider and is photographed in marching to the frontline in August 1944 in the book.
What is very apparent from this biography is the deep impact these early experiences had on Habermas for his entire life. From the mid-1950s, Habermas started down the road to becoming the public intellectual he is widely known as within continental Europe. Writing with the milieu of the new democracy of the Bundesrepublik, he was committed to creating a critical, public discourse. This was within a country that had a very fragile democracy, of the sort even now we can barely imagine – where de-Nazification had been partial so as to leave some functioning bureaucracy; any alignment with Marxist doctrines ran the risk of individuals being accused of being sympathisers with the Demokratische Republik. This was a country where it was not until 1969 that Willy Brandt became the Social Democratic Chancellor, and the CDU/CSU dominance seemingly teetered on the brink of become authoritarian.
With this background illuminated by Müller-Doohm, the drive behind Habermas’ intellectual project become apparent. In sum, it is the recognition that democracy is fragile, historically contingent, and it needs explaining by social science. What is more, democracy also needs supporting, pragmatically and theoretically. This drive to use critical theory to embed a deep democracy that delivers equality, was in a context where Habermas had to negotiate between conservative university authorities and the warring factions that had emerged from the Frankfurt School. It is these moments, where the ideals of critical theory, or of contemporary left thought, bang up against the reality of navigating the contradictions of liberal capitalism, that are the most interesting of the book, and produce some page-turning sections.
In this review, I want to mention two, both occurring around the same time in that period of revolutionary fervour 1968. A thread running through the book is Habermas’ close collaboration with the publisher Suhrkamp and close friendship with Siegfried Unseld, owner and director, who turned it into an intellectual powerhouse in post-war West Germany. This included Habermas’ role in editing the Edition Suhrkamp book series. In a closely described section, Müller-Doohm explains how Unseld’s editorial staff, inspired by wider revolutionary fervour, presented an editorial charter to Unseld asking for the publisher to be “socialized” (p.151). Alarmed and supportive of Unseld, Habermas travelled to Frankfurt in October 1968 and, as described by Unseld:
“using all his theoretical armour, presented the thesis that it would be nonsensical if a publishing house that brought out the right kind of progressive literature…was exposed to an experiment that would put the publisher’s present impact at risk.” (p.152)
The irony of one of the greatest critical thinkers of modern Europe negotiating against workers’ rights, in favour of a capitalism that could afford to publish his works and make them widely read across Germany, and the world, is somewhat pointed.
The second incident which highlights Habermas’ ambiguous position, is his response to student rebellions at this time. In the mid-1960s Habermas was at the heart of protests against the CDU-CSU-led Grand Coalition and its authoritarian tendencies. Along with protests against the Vietnam War, Habermas became embroiled in student demonstrations. It is clear Habermas’ was deeply committed to reform of higher education in West Germany. One of his earliest pieces of research had been on higher education students, considering the potential of them to drive social change. Habermas’ regularly spoke at student occupations (although it seems he was a little less keen when it was his own university being occupied). In 1969 Habermas’ collected writings on university reform were published as Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (Protest Movement and University Reform).
However, in June 1967 the students’ union of the Freie Universität in Berlin protested against a state visit by the Shah of Persia. In the resulting brutal police break-up of the protest, a 26-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed. As student protests developed, Habermas supported the protests “but at the same time he also warned against an activism at any cost and against the danger of ‘provoking a transformation of the indirect violence of institutions into manifest violence.’” (p.141). Habermas’ was heavily criticised by the leader of the students’ movement Rudi Durschke, and in-turn, he denounced their ideology as “left-wing fascism”. This led to the tide to turn against Habermas, with student groups now distancing themselves from him.
These stories from formative years for Habermas, going onto Habermas’ period as director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of the Scientific-Technical World in Starnberg, are the most interesting. It was at the Max Planck institute where Habermas wrote the Theory of Communicative Action and Müller-Doohm does a sterling job summarising the main thesis across a few pages.
From the period of the late 1970s, the biography, unfortunately, becomes a little formulaic and something of a hagiography. Endless visiting professorships, prizes and the spreading importance of Habermas’ thought through the world are narrated. On reflection this could just be the result of where Habermas’ career had got to – this is the life of a global scholar. It could also be a result of a more careful curation of his public profile by Habermas, as his fame grew.
Why should a reader of Local Government Studies be interested in this (enormous) book? Participatory initiatives have now become a norm in governing practices at a local level. In manuals of good governance, countries are exalted to bring citizens into decision-making processes to make them better. In our scholarship we can focus on the policy initiatives that led to such participation institutions – for example, the Skeffington Report into participation in the planning in the United Kingdom. It is easy for us to get swept up in a critique of such initiatives as utterly failing to meet the utopian goals they set themselves, for example, using a Foucauldian critique to portray citizens as dupes doing what government wants them to do.
Yet very few of us would now question that such initiatives should exist, and that good quality discourse is essential to a lively democracy. Our revulsion to the use of “fake news” and ambiguity in what we count as the “truth” belies a deeper tradition from the enlightenment to seek the truth. Underlying these concerns is Habermas’ concept of a rational discourse among free and equal actors. In the English-speaking context, this remains implicit – we don’t get to read Habermas’ numerous contributions to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and De Welt that make him a very public scholar in Germany.
As already touched upon, it is clear from this biography that Habermas himself could not, necessarily, always live up to his own ideals. Another theme, is that throughout his career Habermas has benefited from many structural privileges that his critics, particularly Iris Marion Young, have suggested mean that his ideal speech situation can never come to pass. Put simply, the only woman who really has a role in this book is his wife Ute Wesselhöft, and then as an academic spouse, rather than a person in her own right. All the other key characters in Habermas’ life were men. His career was developing during a period when structural inequalities were much more likely to hold-back women and minority groups, so this is partly understandable as a product of the time. However, in the positions of authority he has had, such as founding the Max Planck institute, Habermas seems to have done little in terms of practical action, as his theoretical position would suggest he should, to address such structural issues. One would hope as a leading critical thinker Habermas was aware of such issues, but this is never apparent from the book.
To conclude, this book is an astounding overview of the life, and intellectual development, of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers, and one who is neglected in English-speaking social science. Müller-Doohm’s archival research is awe-inspiring. Reading the book from the perspective of the UK, with dominance of the tabloid media; a referendum that was recently won on a blatant untruth (the pledge Brexit would lead to £350 million for the NHS); where we are “tired of experts”, it is easy to scoff at Habermas’ ideal speech situation. What becomes clear from the book though, is that Germany does seem to have this – through the scholarly debates on the pages of the leading newspapers, major issues of the day are discussed. The continuing legacy for all of us from Habermas’ work is that we must keep our fragile democracies, at all levels, alive with discourse.