Overcoming Liberalism from Within: On Solidarity and American Socialism

Daniel Tutt | Social Movement Studies | Analysis | March 15th, 2019

"We are dealing with two factors in American life: the absence of feudalism and the presence of the liberal idea."

- Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America [1]

A helpful framework for thinking modern political struggles revolves around how political communities achieve the unmet demands of the French revolution: liberty, egalitarianism (equality) and fraternity. As the Japanese Marxist thinker Kojin Karatani argues, these demands form a dialectical knot of contemporary politics, where liberty stands for upholding the sphere of the market economy; fraternity represents the ideals of reciprocity (the nation); and equality stands for the redistribution of wealth and resources carried out by the state. [2] Political philosophers have conceived of these names as receptacles of demands for social freedom, as a thinking of different organisms in search of homeostasis. For example, Hegel applied theories of living organisms to social spheres and Marx discussed the 'crisis free society' as a social organism.

But liberalism, the reigning political philosophy of the post-French Revolution, has failed in achieving these demands. Why did liberalism fail? The primary opponent of liberalism in the post French Revolutionary period was civic republicanism that posed a two-way dialectic of social freedom between liberty on the market as the best means to producing the social conditions of fraternity. But civic republicanism radically excluded the sphere of equality in its conceptions of social freedom for fear of an ossification of state bureaucracy would impinge on personal individual liberties on the market. But what gave liberalism a particular hegemony is that it was able to achieve what civic republicanism could never dream of achieving by tempering demands for individual freedom by opening them to the fraternal dimension of political life. In many ways, this is a story we know all too well. It is also a story that, post-2016, seems to be coming to an end. The liberal approach to promoting social freedoms has resulted in the rise of immense inequalities of wealth and to racist and xenophobic populations. Somehow, the future feels socialistic.

In a series of lectures entitled The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, the third generation Frankfurt School theorist Axel Honneth argues that today's socialists must overcome the failures of liberalism from within liberalism to achieve the unmet demands of the French Revolution. Honneth's argument is that social freedom must be put forward as a "normative guideline [3]" in the economic sphere. Honneth argues that to achieve the sort of equality within the economic sphere that liberalism has failed to develop, we must return to the praxis of solidarity Marx and other socialists discussed in the late nineteenth century.

To correct the dynamic of liberalism, Honneth argues for solidarity that is immanent to capitalism but no longer tethered to class exclusively. Unlike the Marxist address of solidarity to "workers" Honneth's expansion of social freedom is one that he claims should be addressed more broadly, to "citizens." So 'citizen' replaces the revolutionary category of Marx's proletariat. Expanding the address of social freedom has the potential to disrupt the republican and liberal trap of opposing freedom to fraternity to the neglect of equality. Thus, in the uneven relation of the three spheres of political life solidarity replaces equality - we must achieve solidarity to restore the missing homeostasis. Social freedom is best secured by relations that emphasize mutual solidarity in the economic realm of life as a precondition to secure individual freedom in civic and national life.

Criticizing socialists after Marx, Honneth argues that the early socialists limited their promotion of freedom because they insisted on demands from "societal labor" and not in terms of what Honneth advocates, "political democracy." The task of today's socialists must be to build on what liberalism achieved in terms of individual liberties by appealing to expansions of social freedom in the realm of fraternal relations of civil society, but unlike liberals, socialists must insist that those same freedoms be expanded to the economic realm. In reading Honneth, one gets the sense that he is, in many ways, the philosophical voice of American democratic socialism à la Bernie Sanders.

Honneth is correct to observe that socialist movements from their nineteenth century origins and throughout the 20th century ascribed interests to workers based on a pre-existing set of desires that were thought to already reside within workers by virtue of the exploitation they face as wage laborers. The proletariat was treated as a messianic, albeit secularized, agent of the abolition of existing class society. The effect of the economic determinism of socialist thought was that socialist theory became self-referential and unevenly concerned with the achievement of freedom in the domain of liberty through egalitarianism afforded by state intervention either through redistribution or communist state seizure. Where socialists emphasized the knots of liberty and equality will only come about through achieving proletarian solidarity, liberals sought to govern the state by privileging the sphere of the market as the means for producing fraternal modes of social life.

Do liberals, or at least a certain philosophical version of liberalism; have something to teach socialists today? Honneth insists they do. Today's socialists have refused to learn something vital from liberals: addresses and demands to freedom must appeal to social freedoms broadly understood, and not isolated to economic emancipation. The idea of social freedom Honneth is proposing is thus a praxis of solidarity that is capable of meeting the unrealized ideals of the French Revolution, a praxis that might "offer[s] a mechanism or scheme of action according to which the freedom of each would directly presuppose the freedom of the other." [4] The philosophical source for the generation of greater social freedom is found in the American pragmatist John Dewey. For Dewey, social freedom is enhanced when communication barriers are lifted, wherein the idea of human history becomes an ever-expanding process of human communication through social interaction.[5]

The biggest failure of socialist movements, in Honneth's view, was their "inability to adapt the groundbreaking concept of social freedom to the reality of a functionally differentiated society, making it impossible to apply this concept to a gradually separated social sphere." [6] Communication across the three spheres of political live "functional differentiation", if done through the liberating mode of enhanced communication, is capable of achieving new modes of value beyond capital. Unlike the new reading of Marx's value form in the work of the German Marxist Michael Heinrich, Honneth does not place the task of socialist movements as one directed towards the revolutionary task of abolishing the value form. Such a task reeks of an economistic focus and fails to produce the sort of societal homeostasis he is after. Honneth remains a staunch democratic socialist committed to the existence of market mechanisms in social and political life.

Honneth's idea of social freedom is underpinned by the concept of will-formation and how the collective will of the community ought to ideally form. To overcome liberalism from within, democratic will-formation must function as a communicative act, that is, it must extend the same tendencies of enhanced liberties that liberalism extended to the sphere of the nation and individual liberties, to that of economic liberty. This begs the question of how will-formation occurs in producing inclusive forms of solidarity. What Republicanism has blinded liberals to is the necessity to see the economic sphere as a space of will-formation that must consist of forms of solidarity. Liberals have accepted as a fait accompli that the market is a quasi-sacred sphere. To rival this blind spot within liberalism and its relation to the sacred market, socialists must present an appeal to freedom through solidarity on a global scale and back that up locally lifting of barriers to communication. How socialists go about lifting barriers to communication in the age of big data, social media and algorithmic marketing mechanisms, is not clearly answered. The task ahead for socialists is to once again pick up the banner of the Enlightenment to expand the realm of social freedom to the market.

In homage to Marx's ethical maxim "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs", Honneth's praxis for achieving this political community emphasizes communication so that institutions (including economic institutions) can develop to promote the well-being of others for non-instrumental ends. Socialists should thus seek out a political conception of achieving ends that are for the political community, broadly construed. A political community that is inclusive of ethnic, racial and religious difference. This communicative political community would then be capable of posing a new conception of freedom from that of the liberal conception that places emphasis on the solitary individual based in the sphere of the market, but communicatively free in the sphere of civil life. The individual in the new socialist framework must be understood as a communally grounded subject rooted in forms of solidarity and mutual dependence. [7]

The Case of American Liberalism

With the rise of the democratic socialist ideas in American life following the 2008 economic crash and later the 2010 Occupy Wall Street movement and hitting a crescendo moment with the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders, Honneth's critique seems to offer insight to the American context. But is American socialism capable of overcoming liberalism from within? Recent discussions of the collapse of liberalism following the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 has led many commentators to think of American liberalism as a temporary ruling class that comes and goes. In Ross Douthat's widely read New York Times op-ed[8] on the decline of WASP's as a governing coterie in American life, we are presented with an idea of political power that transfers from distinct ideological communities-most recently the transfer has been from the WASPs (neoconservatives) to the meritocratic Third Way centrists (neoliberals). What Douthat misses is the ideological consistency of liberalism across these two projects.

I want to argue that, on the contrary, American political history and American political thought has been seized by an unmovable liberalism all the way down. The very question of contesting the hegemony of America's deep commitment to liberalism requires that we develop new thinking on what a political community is and how one is formed. In what follows, I want to offer a historical overview of utter dominance of the liberal idea in American political life and from that analysis offer a critique of Honneth. The question of overcoming liberalism from within depends on understanding the magnitude and the inertia the liberal creed actually possesses in America. Before unearthing whether Honneth's model of functional differentiation that emphasizes solidarity can truly rival the liberal idea, we have to understand the unique form liberalism in America has taken historically.

American political life has been formed around a commitment to fraternity and liberty with a hostile relation to equality. It's well known that America has rejected socialism, but even more significant is that America's version of liberalism has also rejected utilitarianism, the nineteenth century social philosophy that supported redistributionist ideals in European societies. The high priest of American liberalism is John Locke whose natural rights philosophy granted liberalism a sense of equality that had no capacity to speak to extreme forms of inequality and class hierarchies. While Locke's foundational insights into private property as a domain of natural rights are significant, what remains even more important is the philosophical notion of original equality Locke offers.

The most important, and overlooked, fact of the American Revolution resides in the absence of feudalism in the social relations from which it sprang. Unlike the French Revolution and other European bourgeois revolutions of the early nineteenth century that had feudal structures looming in the social life of the societies, the American Revolution was a solidly bourgeois revolution. The American Revolution was a form of inverted Freudianism with no primal father ever killed. Hartz, the historian of the groundbreaking history of American liberalism, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) is our guide in this regard. Hartz notes that it was not until very late into the American Revolution that effigies of King George were burned. America never killed a primal father, not having a primal father to kill.

Despite the settler colonial and chattel slavery systems embedded in its origins, these oppressive systems were not sources that reformed the guiding idea of liberalism. American political thought rather relied on a metaphysical Lockianism that conceived of every moral, economic and social problem from the same baseline of equality that founded the American project. The belief that America's equality arose ex nihilo was of course only true for the elite and bourgeois classes within the American society. But the result of this myth of the equality of origins lies the profound inability of liberalism to truly revolutionize social relations when those social relations ossify into rigid racial and class hierarchies. Whereas Europe had developed a sense of community built around multiple moral codes, America had developed one moral code alone: a religious zeal built around the idea of liberalism. Hartz understood that the result of the immunizing effects of the liberal idea in American political life was such that it produced an uneven commitment to the knot we have been tracking between fraternity, liberty and solidarity.

Cathedral Liberalism

Can American liberalism be overcome by socialism? The first place to begin to unravel this problem resides in understanding the role of what I will name the American Cathedral. If liberalism has replaced the moralizing function of conscience politics that came out of the early Christian socialist movements and later the progressive movement, the idea of a Cathedral liberalism is fitting as it evokes the quasi religious homogeneity of the public sphere or civil society liberalism manages over. Unlike the neoreactionary invocation of the concept of the Cathedral by the likes of Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug, the Cathedral I am referring to is one that persists through its function of supporting conscience above commitments to the political community. Put differently, the Cathedral succeeds by valorizing the individual on the condition that collective solidarity or collective-based notions of the individual embedded in a political community are swept to the side. The Cathedral succeeds by placing conscience above solidarity and then weaponizing the sphere of representation and morality to vent the alienated antagonisms of the political community.

We are not facing an either-or proposition in unraveling the American Cathedral of liberalism. Rather, we are facing an ideological matrix that has achieved such profound inertia that it's nearly impossible to think of politics without it. At every crisis and historical juncture of profound political transformation from the Civil War to the New Deal, liberalism has exerted its hegemonic force by preserving the sphere of moral conscience to reinforce an individualized ethic of public rights without aiming to reverse or adjust the fundamental inequities of the market. While the Cathedral is felt perhaps most acutely in today's politically correct politics: 'virtue signaling', 'wokeness' and the figure of the 'SJW', these figures are also frustrated responses to the inadequacies of the Cathedral's limited mode of political address. We are not dealing with a spatial logic of inside/outside with the Cathedral. Like capital, there is no outside to the Cathedral. The task, as Marx imagined it, is one of burrowing inward, not of inhabiting an imagined outplace. It is not that socialist political community must abandon appeals to conscience and moralizing, it is rather that socialists must do so without reinforcing the core creed of America's Lockianism. The Cathedral cannot think a multitude of struggles from within because each time it props itself up what we are faced with is the empty origin of the mythical sameness of each citizen.

But just what is the ideological underpinning of the Cathedral? Again, Hartz is our guide. For Hartz, what keeps the engine of individual liberty humming is the guiding ideology of what he names Algerism, the Gilded Age precursor to post-90s meritocracy. The popular novels and stories of Horatio Alger tell tales of scrappy young white men born into extreme poverty who through perseverance and providential luck enter the Middle Class. In true Gilded Age form, the tales of Horatio Alger rely on the assistance of a paternal wealthy patron that elects the young boy based on his merit and passionate hard work. Algerism is the next logical mutation in the ideological framework opened by the Puritan work ethic Max Weber argues founded the ethical support system of industrial capitalism. Algerism formed the backbone of resilience to the sphere of the market as a sphere of unquestioned liberty. As the guiding myth of the American Cathedral, Algerism ensured that:

No comfortable aristocracy awaited the millionaire success and no apocalyptic dream of revolution functioned as solace for the failed proletariat. But even more significant than these denied satisfactions was the simple fact of denial itself: the compulsive impact of a single creed. [9]

The effects of Algerism have been to reinforce liberalism as an irreversible ethic. All social problems or resistances from working classes or racial justice movements to the injustices of the market have been transformed into technical problems that necessitate a pragmatic solution. This technical turn to every problem was a result of America's abiding liberal faith and origin. Most notably, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal was never painted in anticapitalist terms. On the contrary, Roosevelt adopted many of the quasi-collectivist measures of the European liberal reformers, but he refrained from framing the crisis of capitalism in the language of class as his socialist critics had.[10] Roosevelt instead fell back on the Cathedral logic of "solving problems," which meant that no larger number of New Dealers drifted into socialism than did progressives. The New Deal was a demand for property on the largest scale ever conceived, a dream to extend the promise of Algerism to ever-greater numbers of people. In its origin myth of a society born equal we are faced with the very limits to America's imagination of a possible socialism.

Similar to the New Deal compromise, Gilded Age liberal reformers corrected the excesses of monopoly capitalism by reinforcing the rights of small propertied bourgeoisie by isolating the socialist critique of the system. The liberal reformers of the late nineteenth century swallowed up peasant and petit bourgeois in the same breath, and they consequently swallowed up the vibrant socialist movement and chained it to democratic capitalism. In the background of this movement was the Alger mythos, which grew to become the ideal flag for liberals to wave against the excesses of invisible hand capitalism. As Hartz notes in his treatment of the Gilded Age liberal reforms, if the trusts were at the heart of all evil during the Gilded Age, than the Alger mythos could be resurrected by smashing it. With Alger on their side, American liberals could effectively silence their progressive and nativist critics by reinforcing the sphere of the market as sacrosanct. The task of a socialist politics is to seek out an alternative to this guiding myth. [11]

The dominance of the liberal idea is on display even in the writing of the great literary bard of America, Walt Whitman. Whitman, like Emerson and Thoreau never embraced the Christian socialist movements of their time, which were fairly prominent. For Whitman, the Christian socialism of the late 1800's possessed the right impulse in that the ideals of socialism sought to preserve the dignity and the humanity of the citizen outside of oppressive social and economic arrangements. Socialism, as Whitman remarks, sought to "put the crown on man and take it off things." [12] Whitman, like many American socialists after him, was not prepared to place any work or trust in the idea of the socialist party, nor was he prepared to deal with what comes after the revolution, what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat. Whitman exhibited a distinctively American view of socialism when he said, "I am with them in the rebel, but I don't know about what comes after." The American political imaginary can think the idea of revolution, but it is revolution qua moral individualism that remains its limit point. From the time of the American Revolution, America was born in liberalism, never knowing a break with truly oppressive social conditions.

Cracks in the Cathedral: Achieving Solidarity

Socialist movements today are not facing the same problems socialist revolutions faced in Russia and China during the 20th century. Firstly, once these revolutionary movements achieved the seizure of the state, the nation and the economy (the sphere of liberty and fraternity) were thought to wither with the enhancement of enlightenment. The nation and the state were conceived as extensions of the superstructure of society and not rooted in the base material relations of exchange or production. As superstructure effects, socialist and communist movements of the 20 th century saw the task of overcoming the nation and the state as limits of representation requiring the expansion o enlightenment. But the hegemony of capital over social relations proved this thesis wrong. As Karatani has indicated, this assumption has neglected the modes of exchange inherent in the state form, which makes the state and the nation extensions of the base.[13] Secondly, the premise of revolutionary socialism during the 20th century was built around the unification of heterogeneous, albeit identifiable, elements of the proletariat: workers and peasants, students and factory workers, for example. Contra Honneth's argument, the figure of the masses did in fact possess coherence due to the fact that exploitation at the hand of wage labor provided the grounds of the potential organization of disparate parts of the proletariat.

I would like to argue that what matters in achieving solidarity today does not come through enhancing communicative apparatuses and communicative capacities solely. What matters is waging experiments in formations of communities of solidarity that have no formal existence within civil society. The task is to construct the identity of the proletariat of our time. Freedom is not found in preexisting identities, it is found in structural failures, in points of dissolution, in cracks in the Cathedral. In the exchange we have been discussing, the three spheres are receptacles of unmet demands that must interact fluidly. This tripartite knot is underpinned by a commitment to the subjective solidarity of a proletarian subjects. Capital necessitates that liberty remain immune from the demands of solidarity. It has been proven time and again that liberty and fraternity can produce a stable equilibrium at the enormous cost of human suffering and exploitation in the market. We have understood furthermore that liberalism maintains this partial stability through its refusal of forms of solidarity in its core idea of the political community.

The task of constructing the proletariat must begin with facing and dismantling the historical hegemony of the liberal idea in American political life. The ascension and popularity of socialist ideas and principles from Medicare for all to universally free college must not fall into the same moral protest rhetoric that prior movements have done from the Gilded Age through to the New Deal. Socialists must invent an alternative ideological framework that is capable of overcoming the Alger mythos that permeates ideals of individual liberty. The Cathedral reproduces a sphere of social life that Marx and other nineteenth political philosophers called civil society.

In the political community, he regards himself as a communal being; but in civil society he is active as a private individual, treats other men as means, reduces himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.[14]

This quote from the early Marx is a good reminder that any address to the political community is in fact an address to the subject in the dimension of the most communally connected aspect of their social being. Since 2016, the Cathedral logic, reliant as it is on an address to a homogenous civil society, is no longer capable of sustaining communicative modes that are capable of instituting reforms or justice. Liberal forms of community formation, as Niall Ferguson has rightly observed, rely on "a prescriptive commonality, one leading inexorably toward normative unity. [15]" In the Marxist vision, on the other hand, what threads thinking on community into a common concern is "the practices of judgment, a descriptive commonality, that leads towards multiplicity and contestation. [16]"

Hartz points out that while Locke has guided the American ideals of equality, missing is the Rousseau of the Social Contract, where he theorizes the formation of community beyond identification with the preexisting ideals of civil society. Rousseau's political community allows for a dissensus at the level of the common sense, a community is united in the division of their different and singular senses. Rousseau's innovation in thinking community is that he thinks togetherness outside of an organic essence, or substance. In his famous Social Contract, political community is no longer identified with transcendent figures such as the nation, God, or the leader, and he gives the subjects of the community an interior freedom by opening a new space by which the will of the subjects, what Rousseau refers to as the general will, might gain autonomy from the sphere of the immunizing social totality. To get around immunizing logics that essentialize the will of the people, Rousseau develops a theory of political community that is grounded in sense and existence.

This type of model of political community formation is also found in the work of contemporary French political philosopher Jacques Rancière and his idea of the 'dissensual community.' For Rancière, the political community of dissensus is a political version of Rousseau's generic community, grounded on the notion of what he calls, 'being together apart'. Rancière develops a theory of an aesthetic community that avoids identification with any transcendent entity to ground the community. Rancière develops an ethics of what he terms "dis-identification" with the common wherein subjects are formed in the ruptures and interruptions of normative political existence. These ruptures might often occur at moment of crisis in the capitalist system, or moments of uprising or insurrection. It is these de-stabilizing moments that bring about an otherwise invisible 'un-counted' community, what Rancière calls the "part of no part" into social visibility. He theorizes these communities throughout history, from nineteenth century worker movements up to more contemporary art-collectives. What holds the dissensual community 'together-apart' requires a mode of dissensus from the Cathedral.

In the Russian revolution, the demand of the people was "Bread, Peace and Land" -these were not conceptual demands, but large receptacles where in grievances that did not have to do with these particular demands were expressed through them.[17] Cathedral liberalism cannot think of the same sort of receptacles by which demands can be unloaded. The Cathedral grounds a homogenous political community bounded by the liberal idea. The task of socialism today is to invent the grounds for new ideas of solidarity accompanied by mythic and ideological alternatives to the immunizing pull and sway of the liberal idea.

Daniel Tutt researches and writes about contemporary philosophy. His writing and work has been published in Philosophy Now, the Washington Post, and Crisis and Critique, among other publications. He teaches philosophy as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, Marymount University and he has taught courses in prison through the Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative. He holds a Master of Arts from American University in philosophy and ethics and a Ph.D. in contemporary philosophy from the European Graduate School based in Switzerland.


[1] Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution , Harcourt Inc. New York, NY. 1955, 20.

[2] Karatani, Kojin, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange , Duke University Press, 2014, 234.

[3] Honneth, Axel The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal, Polity Press, Mladen, MA. 2016, 98.

[4] Ibid, 77.

[5] Ibid, 64.

[6] Ibid, 77.

[7] Ibid, 25.

[8] Douthat, Ross Why We Miss the WASPs, New York Times, December 5, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/opinion/george-bush-wasps.html

[9] Hartz, Louis The Liberal Tradition in America, 211

[10] Post, Charlie, The New Deal and the Popular Front Models for contemporary socialists? International Socialist Review, Issue #108 https://isreview.org/issue/108/new-deal-and-popular-front

[11] A good idea for a research project would be to track the genealogical through-line from the Alger myth of the Gilded Age all the way up to the meritocracy of neoliberal Third Way politics up to today's Green New Deal.

[12] Marsh, John In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself , 3Monthly Review Press, New York, 2015

[13] Karatani, Kojin, Structure of World History: Modes of Exchange, 2. Karatani notes that a major flaw in historical materialism and its interpretation in the 20th century is that it led to conceptions of the state and the nation as intrinsic parts of the superstructure on par with art or philosophy. Overcoming these imaginary structures could thus be conceived as an act of enlightenment. He argues that in fact the state and the nation should be understood as extensions of the base and namely, as extensions of the dominant modes of exchange.

[14] Marx, Karl, On the Jewish Question, 4.

[15] Ferguson, Kennan (2012) All in the Family: On Community and Incommensurability Duke University Press, 2012, 51.

[16] Ibid, 51.

[17] Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso Books, New York, NY 2012, 97 - 98.