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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2009

Department of History, Central Connecticut State University


Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) has for decades been recognized as a leading European philosopher and public intellectual. But his global visibility has obscured his rootedness in German political culture and debate. The most successful historical accounts of the transformation of political culture in West Germany have turned on the concept of German statism and its decline. Viewing Habermas through this lens, I treat Habermas as a radical critic of German statism and an innovative theorist of democratic constitutionalism. Based on personal interviews with Habermas and his German colleagues, and by setting the major work alongside his occasion-specific political writings from 1984 to 1996, I interpret Habermas's political thought as an evolving response to two distinct moments in German history: first, the mid-1980s, and second, the revolutions of 1989 and German reunification in 1990. This essay challenges the dominant interpretations of Habermas's mature statement of his political theory. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Democracy (1992), which have described it as marking a distinct break with, and reversal of, the commitments of his earlier work. By contrast, I describe the work as an intellectual summa, consistent with Habermas's previous thought and career, and containing remarkable historical interpretations of two intertwined phenomena: the intellectual and institutional dimensions of the Bonn Republic and Habermas's own biography.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 Jürgen Habermas, “Preface,” in idem, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (hereafter BFN) (Cambridge, 1996), xliii, originally published as Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats (Frankfurt am Main, 1992).

2 “The real heart of Habermas' work, however, has been drawn out more closely since he (more or less) abandoned Marx. The utopia of civil interaction was, from the outset, Habermas' own utopia, not invariably (or necessarily) bound to material equality.” Thornhill, Chris, Political Theory in Modern Germany (London, 2000), 173Google Scholar, italics mine.

3 See Mouffe, Chantal, “Introduction: Schmitt's Challenge,” in Mouffe, Chantal, ed., The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (London and New York, 1999)Google Scholar; and Hill, Mike and Montag, Warren, “Introduction: What Was, What Is, the Public Sphere? Post-Cold War Reflections,” in Hill, Mike and Montag, Warren, eds., Classes, Masses and the Public Sphere (London and NY, 2000)Google Scholar.

4 Slavoj Žižek, “Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-politics,” in Mouffe, Challenge, n. 3.

5 As Habermas put it, “Even if readers do not always see the ‘end of critical theory’ in this project, they frequently think it defuses the critique of capitalism and just gives in to political liberalism.” Habermas, , “Reply to Symposium Participants, Benjamin Cardozo School of Law,” Cardozo Law Review 17/4–5 (1996), 1545Google Scholar.

6 William Scheuerman argues that BFN “offers at times a surprisingly moderate and even conciliatory picture of ‘real-existing’ democracy . . . [It is] an inadequately critical assessment of capitalist democracy.” See Scheuerman, , “Between Radicalism and Resignation: Democratic Theory in Habermas's Between Facts and Norms,” in Habermas: A Critical Reader, ed. Dews, Peter (Oxford, 1999), 153–77Google Scholar, 155–6.

7 I develop this thesis in my forthcoming Jürgen Habermas: An Intellectual Biography from Cambridge University Press.

8 McCormick [1997] implies a liberal turn: Habermas's BFN “is something of a culminating moment” in the absorption in recent years by social democratic political theory of liberal institutional, legal and ethical theory.” McCormick, John, Carl Schmitt's Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as Technology (Chicago, 1995), 306Google Scholar. Matuštík implies a liberal–legal turn beginning after 1968: “As the student movements overtake the main stages of Paris, Berlin [and elsewhere] . . . [Habermas] gradually devolves from an intellectual leader of the progressive German left into a reform-minded German professor, formal philosopher (more neo-Kantian and Hegelian than Marxian), and legal scholar.” See Matuštík, Martin Beck, Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical–Political Profile (London, 2001), 93Google Scholar. It is implicit in Thornhill: “Habermas' very late work continues the fusion of Kantian legal theory and radical Aristotelian anthropology which informed his earliest works,” in Christopher Thornhill, “Jürgen Habermas,” in idem, Political Theory in Modern Germany: An Introduction (London, 2000), 173; and explicit in Baynes: “The new book assigns to law and the legal community generally a more positive and prominent role in the legitimation process” than did his earlier works, and this reflects the influence on Habermas of Talcott Parsons's theory of law as a medium of social integration. See Baynes, Kenneth, “Democracy and Rechtsstaat: Habermas's Faktizität und Geltung,” in White, Steven, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Habermas (Cambridge, 1995), 201–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 201.

9 See, for example, Habermas's collection of essays on the student movement in Germany, Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (Frankfurt am Main, 1969). As he writes there, “The only way I see to bring about conscious structural reform in a social system organized in an authoritarian welfare state is radical reformism.” Ibid., 49, italics mine.

10 There are only two exceptions of which I am aware: Matuštík, Jürgen Habermas, 202–18, and Howard, Dick, “Law and Political Culture,” Cardozo Law Review 17/4–5 (1996), 13911430Google Scholar. A representative overview of the reception of BFN by political philosophers and constitutional lawyers can be found in Baynes, Kenneth and von Schomberg, René, eds., Discourse and Democracy: Essays on Habermas's Between Facts and Norms (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002)Google Scholar, and in “Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges,” the papers from a conference in 1992, Cardozo Law Review 17/4–5 (March 1996), 767–1684. Michel Rosenfeld and Andrew Arato's volume (Berkeley, 1998) under the same title represents a selection of papers from the Cardozo Law Review.

11 Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy,” in idem, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 258.

12 See Habermas, BFN, 295–302, for the identical argument summarized in “Three Normative Models of Democracy (1998).

13 Habermas, BFN, 549, n. 10.

14 Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy,” 258.

15 Ibid., 246.

16 William Rehg, “Translator's Introduction,” BFN, xxiv. For the core argument see BFN, chap. 3.1: “Private Autonomy and Public Autonomy, Human Rights and Popular Sovereignty,” 84–104. Habermas published summaries of the main ideas of BFN in a 1994 “Postscript” and in two of the essays in his 1998 volume The Inclusion of the Other, all of which make it clear that the thesis he worked out in BFN, chap. 3 remained central to his thinking through at least 1996, since these were originally published in 1996 as Die Einbeziehung des anderen: Studien zur politischen Theorie (Frankfurt am Main, 1996). See “Three Normative Models of Democracy,” 239–52, and “On the Internal Relation between the Rule of Law and Democracy,” 253–64, in Inclusion of the Other.

17 BFN, 122.

18 “According to the liberal view, the democratic process takes place exclusively in the form of compromises between competing interests. Fairness is supposed to be guaranteed by rules of compromise-formation . . . Such rules are ultimately justified in terms of liberal basic rights.” Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy,” 246.

19 Ibid., 244.

20 Ibid., 246.

21 Habermas, “On the Relation between the Nation, the Rule of Law and Democracy,” in idem, Inclusion of the Other, 139, italics added. Charles Larmore and Jan Werner Müller have also argued that Habermas is a democrat first and a liberal second. For a conclusion similar to mine see Larmore, Charles, The Morals of Modernity (New York, 1999), 217–19Google Scholar, and Müller, Jan-Werner, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Postwar European Thought (New Haven and London, 2003), 195Google Scholar.

22 BFN, 478, italics mine.

23 BFN, xvi, italics mine.

24 BFN, 444–5.

25 “You know that I grew up in the tradition of what Merleau-Ponty named ‘Western Marxism’ . . . I have tried to free myself from the teleological view of history and the cryptonormative assumptions built into it. Instead of the rationality of productive forces, including natural science and technology, I trust in the productive force of communication.” Interview with Hans-Peter Krüger, Nov. 1988, Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit: Kleine Politische Schriften V (Frankfurt am Main, 1985), 82–97, 85.

26 Habermas, “Popular Sovereignty as Procedure,” (1988), reprinted in BFN, 468.

27 Habermas, “The Normative Content of Modernity,” Lecture XII, in idem, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, MA, 1987, hereafter PDM), originally published as Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölf Vorlesungen (Frankfurt am Main, 1985).

28 Die nachholende Revolution: Kleine Politische Schriften VII (Frankfurt am Main, 1990),196; PDM, 357.

29 “In modern societies . . . there is no equivalent for the philosophy of the subject's model of self-influence in general and for the Hegelian–Marxist understanding of revolutionary action in particular.” PDM, 361.

30 Nachholende Revolution, 196; BFN, 442. Habermas thereby updated his idea of political culture as the “space in-between” and the “non-institutionalizable” mistrust of the citizens he had posited as the critical ingredient in the “non-identical Rechtsstaat” in his 1983 writings on civil disobedience. See Habermas, “Ziviler Ungehorsam—Testfall für den demokratischen Rechtsstaat. Wider den autoritären Legalismus in der Bundesrepublik,” in Peter Glotz, ed., Ziviler Ungehorsam im Rechtsstaat, (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), 53.

31 BFN, 486.

32 Habermas, “Reply to Symposium Participants,” 1481–2, italics mine.

33 Ibid. For Habermas's definition of practical reason see Habermas, “On the Pragmatic, the Ethical and the Moral Employments of Practical Reason,” in idem, Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics, trans. Ciarin Cronin (Cambridge, MA, 1993); originally published as Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik (Frankfurt am Main, 1991), 100–18.

34 Author communication with Professor Klaus Günther of the J. W. Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, May 2005.

35 Personal communication with Habermas, Flensburg, Germany, July 2004.

36 The “historians' controversy” of 1985–6 in which Habermas engaged in public debate with Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber.

37 Habermas, “Die Krise des Wohlfahrtstaates und die Erschöpfung utopischer Energien,” in idem, Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit.

38 Ibid., 157, 160.

39 Habermas's concern with the paternalism of the social welfare state is an abiding theme in his work: it first manifested in his writings from the late 1950s and recurred especially from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Habermas introduced his procedural paradigm of law as an alternative to the two postwar paradigms (liberal and social welfare state), the errors of which were analogous: “Both views are fixated on the question of whether it suffices to guarantee private autonomy through individual liberties or . . . whether [private autonomy] must be secured by granting welfare entitlements.” BFN, 408.

40 Ibid., 437, italics mine.

41 The notion of “false concreteness”(falsche Konkretismus) was an important category in Adorno's thought.

42 Habermas, Nachholende Revolution, 195.

43 Habermas, “Krise des Wohlfahrtstaates,” 161.

44 Ibid.,158.

45 Habermas, “Popular Sovereignty as Procedure” (1988), in BFN, 463. He is referring to François Furet's Penser La Révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).

46 Ibid., 471, italics added.

47 Ibid., 471.

48 See my forthcoming study for an elaboration of these themes. Author communication with Habermas, 30 May/7 June 2005: “I believe that I have been true to my basic political convictions . . . In the '60s, a left loyal to the constitution existed that was left of the Godesburg SPD.” Bad Godesburg was the conference held by the Social Democratic Party in 1959, at which the party distanced itself from its historic self-definition as a worker's party informed by Marxist theory.

49 BFN, 465.

50 The same thought is behind his chapter on contemporary Marxist theory in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Retrieving the “normative content” of modernity means moving away from the “concepts of praxis philosophy if not its intentions.” Habermas, “Excursus on Cornelius Castoriadis: The Imaginary Institution,” PDM, 327–35, 347.

51 “I've quite fiercely decided to defend [social theory in the Marxian tradition] as a still meaningful enterprise”; “I do think that I have been a reformist all my life, and maybe I have become a bit more so in recent years. Nevertheless, I mostly feel I am the last Marxist.” Habermas, “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 421–61, 464, 469.

52 Here Habermas was following other German legal theorists on the pragmatic, moderate left such as Ulrich Preuss, a political scientist and judge in Berlin. See BFN, 444: “Ulrich Preuss defines ‘constitution’ as the establishment of a fallible learning process through which a society gradually overcomes its ability to engage in normative reflection on itself.” See Preuss, Ulrich, “Verfassungstheoretische Überlegungen zur normativen Begründung des Wohlfahrtstaates,” in Sachsse, C. and Engelhardt, H. T., eds., Sicherheit und Freiheit: Zur Ethik des Wohlfahrtstaates (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 73Google Scholar.

53 Habermas, BFN, 384, italics added.

54 See the “Postscript” (1994) to BFN, 461, for one of his many uses of this phrase.

55 “The Past as Future,” in Michael Haller, The Past as Future: “Vergangenheit als Zukunft.” Jürgen Habermas Interviewed by Michael Haller, trans. and ed. Max Pensky, Foreword by Peter Hohendahl (Lincoln, NE, 1994), 57.

56 Ibid., 58.

57 Ibid., 51.

58 Ibid., 34.

59 “What we're objecting to is the reckless treatment of incalculable and exhaustible moral and cultural resources”; “The poisoned atmosphere created by this transfer of the moral ‘rubbish heap” into West German management doesn't just concern the one side.” Ibid., 47, 51.

60 Ibid., 47.

61 Ibid., 47.

62 Article 23 had been used for the accession of the Saarland in 1957. On 1 July 1990 monetary union was established; on 23 August the East German chamber (Volkskammer) voted to accede to the Federal Republic of Germany.

63 Robert Leicht, Die Zeit, 3 Feb. 1990. Reprinted in Güggenberger, Bernd and Stein, Tine, eds., Die Verfassungsdiskussion im Jahr der deutschen Einheit: Analysen—Hintergründe—Materialien (Munich, 1991)Google Scholar.

64 Karl-Heinz Ladeur, “Verfassungsgebung als Katharsis: Der Entwurf des ‘Runden Tisches’”; and Gerd Roellecke, “Dritter Weg zum zweiten Fall. Der Verfassungsentwurf des Runden Tisches würde zum Scheitern des Staates führen,” Güggenberger and Stein, Die Verfassungsdiskussion.

65 The Past as Future, 59.

66 Habermas, Nachholende Revolution, 212.

67 Habermas put “accession” (Beitritt) in quotation marks to underscore his critique. Reunification under Article 23 would “leave Article 146 empty . . . it contradicts the methodological principle of interpreting the constitution as a unified whole.” Ibid., 217.

68 Ibid., 216.

69 Ibid., 216.

70 In 1949 there had been no constitution-giving assembly, but rather a parliamentary council elected by the regional parliaments. The council deliberated under Konrad Adenauer's chairmanship and submitted its draft constitution to the Allied military governors for approval.

71 Habermas, Nachholende Revolution, 216.

72 Ibid., 218.

73 Chambers, Simone, “Democracy, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Legitimacy,” Constellations 11/2 (June 2004), 167CrossRefGoogle Scholar, italics mine.

75 When I asked him if he thought “traces” of disappointment were evident in the work, he said he did not know. Author communication with Habermas, 30 May/7 June 2005.

76 BFN, 395.

77 The Past as Future, 52.

78 Haller, “Afterword” (May 1993), in The Past as Future, 150.

79 See Müller, Jan-Werner, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Postwar European Thought (New Haven, 2003), 248Google Scholar. See also Kvistad, Gregg, The Rise and Demise of German Statism: Loyalty and Poltical Membership (Providence, RI, 1999)Google Scholar. For recent important statements of the decline of statism in the field of jurisprudence in particular see Möllers, Christoph, Staat als Argument (München, 2000)Google Scholar; and Schlink, Bernhard, “Die Enthronung der Staatsrechtswissenschaft durch die Verfassungsgerichtsbarkeit,” Der Staat 28 (1989), 161–72Google Scholar. For an earlier generation's accounts of German statism see, for example, Hennis, Wilhelm, “Zum Problem der deutschen Staatsanschauung,” Viertelsjahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 7 (1959), 123Google Scholar.

80 See BFN, 99, for the source of my metaphor.

81 BFN, 135, italics original.

82 Ibid., 134.

83 BFN, 84–9. Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Georg Friedrich Puchta, Bernhard Windschied, Rudolf von Ihering, Hans Kelsen.

84 Ibid., 88–9.

85 Ibid., 84, italics mine.

86 Ibid., 89.

87 Ibid., 87, italics mine.

88 Ibid., 389. “A trend already bemoaned by Max Weber, that fully asserted itself . . . only at the end of WWII.” For the remarkable connection Habermas draws between Forsthoff and Weber see Habermas, “Recht und Moral” (Tanner Lectures 1986), reprinted in idem, Faktizität und Geltung, 541–99, 541: “Forsthoff [merely] continued Weber's critique with legal dogmatic means.” For the English version see The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 8 (Salt Lake City, 1988), 217–80.

89 See Rheinstein, Max, ed., Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society (2nd edn of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 1925), trans. Shils, Edward (Cambridge, MA, 1954)Google Scholar.

90 Habermas, “Recht und Moral,” 543.

91 BFN, 389–90. Compare Habermas, “Further Reflections,” in Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, 435.

92 BFN, 189.

93 Ibid., 563–4, n. 75, italics mine.

94 See Habermas, , Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik (Frankfurt am Main, 1991)Google Scholar.

95 Richard Bernstein, “The Retrieval of the Democratic Ethos,” in “Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges,” 1127–46, 1139–40.

96 Ibid., 1141.

97 For the best overview of the jurisprudence of the 1950s see Stolleis, Michael, “Die Staatsrechtslehre der fünfziger Jahre,” in Henne, Thomas and Riedlinger, Arne, eds., Das Lüth-Urteil aus (rechts-)historischer Sicht: die Konflikte um Veit Harlan und die Grundrechtsjudikatur des Bundesverfassungsgerichts (Berlin, 2005)Google Scholar. For the Smend circle and its influence see Günther, Frieder, Denken vom Staat her: die bundesdeutsche Staatsrechtslehre zwischen Dezision und Integration, 1949–1970 (München, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 Ingeborg Maus, “Liberties and Popular Sovereignty: On Jürgen Habermas's Reconstruction of the System of Rights,” in “Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges,” 830.

99 Bernhard Schlink, “The Dynamics of Constitutional Adjudication,” in “Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges,” 1234. Habermas's response to Schlink was brief: “Since I did not invent this interpretation but took it from the numerous writings of prominent scholars and even members of the Court itself, I would rather leave this to legal scholars to settle.” See Habermas, “Reply to Symposium Participants,” 1477–8.

100 This is clear from his characterization of the work of US legal scholar Michael Perry: “In fact [Perry's] kind of value jurisprudence raises the kind of legitimation problem that [Ingeborg] Maus and [Ernst Wolfgang] Böckenförde analyze with respect to the decision-making practice of the Federal Constitutional Court.” BFN, 258.

101 Ibid., 254. In a distinct minority, Bernhard Schlink disputes the existence of value-jurisprudence, calling it a myth. “The Bundesverfassungsgericht's value orientation is a myth. It is true that between the 1950s and 1970s [it] discussed fundamental rights as being values, and as forming a value-system. But it never meant this in a philosophically ambitious sense, in the sense of a material value ethics developed by Max Scheler or Nicolai Hartmann.” Schlink, “Dynamics,” 1234.

102 BFN, 254.

103 Ibid., 256.

104 Maus, Liberties, 831. Maus takes the argument much further than Habermas, however. She explicitly compared (at 829–30) value-jurisprudence to the National Socialist claim to replace the formalistic rule of law with a rule of justice (Gerechtigkeitsstaat).

105 Habermas, “Internal Relation of Law and Democracy,” in idem, Inclusion of the Other, 260.

106 For a discussion see Kommers, Donald, The Constitutional Jurisprudence of the Federal Republic of Germany (Durham, NC, 1989)Google Scholar.

107 Habermas, “Internal Relation,” 260. For the same thought, compare “Postscript,” in BFN, 454.

108 BFN, 89.

109 Ibid., 257–8.

110 Ibid., 223. Habermas adopts the phrase from the chapter with that title in Peter Häberle's Die Verfassung des Pluralismus (Frankfurt am Main, 1980).

111 Habermas, “Recht und Gewalt. Ein Deutsches Trauma,” in idem, Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit.

112 See note 54 above.