Chapter 4


Habermas, Communication, Discourse and Democracy


Habermas argues that we should refocus a critique of contemporary society on our human ability to use languages rather than on economic exploitation. Human communications have evolved to give us broad systems of symbolic agreement (culture and languages) which were intended to provide communications media that were to the advantage of our species. The fundamental purpose of these symbol systems seems to be to coordinate social action for human survival and flourishing. This evolved ability that humans have achieved for communications that enhance survival is inherent in all our languages. It is not lost however obscured it may be by the many examples of poor communication and their dire results that we see in the world about us.

Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action analyses the principles of our language to better understand this potential for benign communication and to become conscious of its potential to generate rational choices. At the same time he theorises why it has been distorted and effected or allowed all manner of social pathologies to occur.

My case is that Exploding Cinema provides a communicative arena that furthers the human communicative potential. This is an arena in which cultural values can be freely offered and contested in the media of projected images and live performance. Habermas' theory is used as a framework within which to view and evaluate Exploding Cinema activity. The critiques of his theory allow us to give this evaluation a critical edge. Before examining his theory I will briefly contextualise Habermas within the broad Western tradition of Marxism.

The Western Marxist tradition

It was only after Karl Marx's death in 1883 that his colleague Frederick Engels wrote systematic expositions of his theory of Historical Materialism that gave it widespread political influence. Three quarters of Marx's own writing was unpublished when he died. The next generation of socialist theorists published these and consolidated Marx and Engels work rather than developing it.[1]

The period before and during the WW1 saw a great expansion of Marxist discourse particularly in Austria, Germany and Russia. A Marxist theory of politics developed in response to the powerful proletarian parties emerging into the democratic arena and the elemental struggle of the rural Russian populations.

The expanded concept of the political was not matched by a deeper understanding of the functional modes, forms of communication and institutional conditions of egalitarian will-formation. (Habermas, 1996, p478)

Although the Russian Revolution and Civil War between 1917 - 1921 was successful, in that it established the first communist state, the West European uprisings of 1918 - 1920 failed in the face of a more powerful and mature capitalism.[2]

As the idealism and optimism of Marxist theory was being crushed in the wake of its apparently victorious praxis, so Marxist theorists were retreating to the safety of academia. The theory/ practice bond of classical Marxism was gradually severed through the 1930s as Marxist theory was absorbed by the academy. A new generation of Marxists born from 1885 (Lukacs) to 1918 (Althusser) came to think against this situation.[3]

These were concentrated mainly in Germany, France and Italy. Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci (b 1891) were the last active communist party leaders in the West who were also philosophers. Henceforth Marxist theory was divorced from mass culture and in effect became a branch of academic philosophy. This shift was fuelled by the late publication in the Thirties of Marx's early philosophical work.[4] Marxism became a theoretical commentary on Marx's work or on his influences.[5] It developed an esoteric language and a debate with bourgeois theorists rather than the prior debate with proletarian praxis.[6]

The Frankfurt Institute was set up in 1923 by Felix Weil as an independent Institute of Social Research within a quasi-academic framework. Set up to promote Marxist studies it was endowed by a wealthy grain merchant. Carl GrÄnberg was director of the Institute from 1923-1929. In 1930 one of its founders Max Horkheimer (b 1895) took the directorship of the Institute and created an innovative theoretical programme that shifted from the 'science of historical materialism' to a 'Critical Social Theory'. CST was to be based on the evidence of empirical investigations, from powerful new disciplines such as sociology and psychology, in a unique interaction with philosophical discourse.[7]

Referring to early Marx on the one hand and Max Weber on the other the Frankfurt theorists replaced the concept of exploitation with that of domination. Domination referred to a wider range of social relations and a concept of power influenced by the post Freudian analysis of Wilhelm Reich in his 'Character Analysis' (1927) and 'The Mass Psychology of Fascism' (1933).[8]

The Nazi victory in 1933 forced the institute into exile in the USA where it was more isolated from working class struggles and forced to publicly adhere to liberal ideologies. Returning to Germany in 1949 it maintained this general depoliticisation.[9]

A central idea of the Frankfurt school, influenced by Max Weber who had died in 1920, was that the instrumental rationality of a science and technology driven by capitalism had thoroughly penetrated people's subjectivities. Weber, seeing instrumental rationality as the driving force of modernism, had accepted bureaucracy, technology and mass culture as an inevitable part of this progress. Critical Social Theory saw these forms as needing to be criticised and saw elite forms of art as being the only site in which the spark of human autonomy could survive. It perceived mass culture in a homogenised form as being simply and solely 'a new outlet for capitalist investment' (Aronowitz, 1994 p122).

The masses, once the hope of Marx, are now seen reduced to willing victims of the capitalist machine.

For critical theory, genuine high art was the last refuge of critical practice in a world completely dominated by total administration. Society was marked by a wisened life world in which entertainment replaced a vital public sphere where citizens are competent to fully debate political issues and can really control their own affairs. (Aronowitz, 1994 p124)



[1] An example is G.V. Plekanov who is known for his Art and Social Life, (Lawrence and Wishart undated, Orig. c1912)


[2] The ensuing reaction cleared the way for the rise of fascism and the isolation of the USSR. When Lenin died in 1924 and Jozef Stalin took the reins of power, class and privilege was reinstated and maintained by violence and terror. Theorists were invariably silenced, exiled or killed and little innovative theory came out of the Comintern in the ensuing period.

In spite of the isolation and internal repression the USSR demonstrated its newly forged industrial power by halting the Nazi advance. USSR went on to become the pre-eminent power over Eastern Europe and with its development of nuclear weapons a global super power. But after WW2 the Western model of liberal democracy became stable for the first time. Capitalism shifted from its imperialist model to a post colonialist global consumerism, giving rise to a long capitalist boom. At the same time the East European Soviet satellites were being throttled by authoritarian bureaucracies sponsored by the USSR.


[3] Perry Anderson's table in his Considerations on Western Marxism, (Verso 1979 p23), lists: Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Della Volpe, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Adorno, Satre, Goldmann & Althusser.


[4] Mainly the 1844 manuscripts, Anderson (1979) p52


[5] Influences such as G.W.F. Hegel or Ludwig Feuerbach.


[6] Karl Korsch (b.1886) was one Marxist who kept the critical edge of Marxism alive in this period. He published his Marxism and Philosophy in 1923, which put an emphasis on working class self-activity and continued to be critical of Marxism from a libertarian viewpoint right into the Sixties. His influence on Habermas, along with Lukac, is traced by Harry F. Dahms in his 'Theory in Weberian Marxism: patterns of Critical Social Theory in Lukacs and Habermas' in Sociological Theory, 15 (3), 1997, pp181 - 214.


[7] This was the period in which Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno joined the Institute.


[8] The relation of Reich to Adorno's own The Authoritarian Personality (1950) is ignored by Anderson and relegated to footnote by Aronowitz. Freud had published Civilisation and its Discontents in 1930. The Frankfurt school was, of course, permeated with his influence which is perhaps most evident in Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation. Nietzsche was another non-Marxist with a strong influence on both Adorno and Marcuse. In other words there was a strong sense of the irrational, the non-rational and the aesthetic.


[9] It is said that Horkheimer's copies of Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, his journal of the Thirties, were kept in the basement 'in a crate that was nailed shut'. See Benhabib, BonB and McCole eds. On Max Horkheimer: new perspectives (MIT Press 1993 p10)