Historical Remarks on the Question of Organization

by Jürgen Habermas

The mediation of theory and praxis can only be clarified if to begin with we distinguish three functions, which are measured in terms of different criteria: the formation and extension of critical theorems, which can stand up to scientific discourse; the organization of processes of enlightenment, in which such theorems are applied and can be tested in a unique manner by the initiation of processes of reflection carried on within certain groups toward which these processes have been directed; and the selection of appropriate strategies, the solution of tactical questions, and the conduct of the political struggle. On the first level, the aim is true statements, on the second, authentic insights, and on the third, prudent decisions. Because in the tradition of the European working-class movement all three tasks at once were assigned to the party organization, the specific differences have become obscured. The theory serves primarily to enlighten those to whom it is addressed about the position they occupy in an antagonistic social system and about the interests of which they must become conscious in this situation as being objectively theirs. Only to the degree that organized enlightenment and consultation lead to those groups toward which this is directed actually recognizing themselves in the interpretations offered, do the analytically proposed interpretations actually become consciousness, and does the objectively attributed situation of interests actually become the real interest of a group capable of action. Marx, who viewed the industrial proletariat as the sole group toward which he directed his analysis, called this constituting the mass of proletarians as "a class for itself." Of course, Marx specified the objective conditions under which the com-



munists, already theoretically enlightened, were to organize the process of enlightenment for the mass of the workers. The economic compulsion for forming "workers’ coalitions" and the socialization of labor within the factory system produced a common situation in which the workers would naturally be forced to learn to defend their common interests; the "real subsumption of wage labor under capital" produced the equally real basis on which the participants could be made conscious of the political significance of their economic struggles.

The organization of action must be distinguished from this process of enlightenment. While the theory legitimizes the work of enlightenment, as well as providing its own refutation when communication fails, and can, in any case, be corrected, it can by no means legitimize a fortiori the risky decisions of strategic action. Decisions for the political struggle cannot at the outset be justified theoretically and then be carried out organizationally. The sole possible justification at this level is consensus, aimed at in practical discourse, among the participants, who, in the consciousness of their common interests and their knowledge of the circumstances, of the predictable consequences and secondary consequences, are the only ones who can know what risks they are willing to undergo, and with what expectations. There can be no theory which at the outset can assure a world-historical mission in return for the potential sacrifices. The sole advantage which Marx could have been permitted to assure to a proletariat acting in solidarity would have been that a class, which with the aid of a true critique constitutes itself as a class, is only then at all in a position to make clear to itself in practical discourse how it is to act politically in a rational manner—while the members of bourgeois parties and of the ruling class as such are ensnared in ideology and incapable of rationally clarifying practical questions; thus they can only act and react under compulsion.

Those three functions which I have distinguished cannot be fulfilled according to one and the same principle: a theory can only be formulated under the precondition that those engaged in scientific work have the freedom to conduct theoretical discourse; processes of enlightenment (if they are to avoid exploitation and deception) can only be organized under the precondition


that those who carry out the active work of enlightenment commit themselves wholly to the proper precautions and assure scope for communications on the model of therapeutic "discourses"; finally, a political struggle can only be legitiniately conducted under the precondition that all decisions of consequence will depend on the practical discourse of the participants—here too, and especially here, there is no privileged access to truth. An organization which tries to master all three of these tasks according to the same principle will not be able to fulfill any of them correctly. And even if this organization is successful according to the usual criteria of merciless history, as Lenin’s Party was, it exacts the same price for its success which ambivalent victories have always exacted till now in the unbroken continuity of a history subject to "natural" uncontrolled causality.

In his famous article "Methodisches zur Organizationsfrage" ("Toward a Methodology for the Problem of Organization," September 1922), Georg Lukács developed the most consistent formulation of a theory of the Party, one which solves the problem of the mediation of theory and praxis solely with a view to the imperatives of the conduct of the political struggle. This is the meaning of the thesis: "The organization is the form of the mediation between theory and praxis." To begin with, Lukács subjects theory to the requirements of strategic action:

Only posing the question with an organizational orientation makes it possible to actually criticize the theory from the viewpoint of praxis. If the theory is juxtaposed to an action without mediation, without it becoming clear how its effect on the latter is intended, thus, without making clear the organizational links between them, then the theory itself can only be criticized with respect to its immanent theoretical contradictions, and so forth.

That the truth of a theory can be tested independently of whether it is useful for certain discourses which are preparatory to action is immaterial for Lukács. Theoretical statements are to be selected from the point of view of organizational questions. Therefore any scope for scientific discourse within the Party is


also prohibited. To permit it would only further opportunism: "While for pure theory the most diverse views and directions can live side by side peaceably, while their oppositions assume the form merely of discussions which can take place placidly within the framework of one and the same organization without threatening to disrupt it, the same questions, when they are given an organizational orientation, present themselves in the sharpest manner as directions which are mutually exclusive. Every ‘theoretical’ direction or divergence of views must immediately be transformed into an organizational issue if it is not to remain mere theory, an abstract opinion, if it really has the intention of showing the path to its realization.’’ Lukács does not want to tolerate any indecision concerning the validity of hypotheses. Theoretical deviations are therefore to be immediately subjected to sanctions on the organizational level. Secondly, just like theory, the enlightenment of the Proletariat is also subordinated unhesitatingly to the purposes of the Party leadership. To be sure, like Marx, Lukács sees the task of the Party to consist in inducing the mass of the wage workers to attain "self-knowledge . . . as the knowledge of their objective situation at a certain stage of the historical development" with the aid of a correct theory. But he by no means conceives of the efforts of the Communist Party to develop proletarian class consciousness as a process of enlightenment, ‘‘in which all that is involved is rendering the unconscious conscious, the latent actual, and so forth; in a better formulation: in which this process of becoming conscious does not represent a terrible ideological crisis for the proletariat itself.’’ Like Lenin, Lukács is convinced that the proletariat is still powerfully ensnared in the forms of thinking and feeling of capitalism, that the subjective development lags behind the economic crises. However, if “from the absence of a clear and persistent will to revolution within the proletariat’’ one is not to conclude “the absence of an objective revolutionary situation,’’ if the ‘‘conflict between individual consciousness and class consciousness in every single proletarian is by no means accidental,” then the Party as the embodiment of class consciotusness must act representatively for the masses, and not allow itself to be made dependent on their spontaneity. The Party


takes the first conscious step; it steers a still backward proletariat into a struggle, and only during the course of that struggle will it constitute itself as a class. In the Party the still backward class may see a consciousness, anticipated but as yet inaccessible to it, at least as a fetish: "The organizational independence of the Party is necessary, so that the proletariat can directly perceive its own class consciousness as a historical figure [Gestalt]."

But with that, ultimately, the theory is also withdrawn from confirmation by the agreement of those whom it is to aid in the attainment of self-reflection. If the Party, rendered organizationally independent, must exercise "the uninterrupted tactical consideration of the state of consciousness of the broadest and most backward masses," then "here the function of the correct theory for the organizational problem of the Communist Party can be seen. The Party is to represent the highest objective form of proletarian action. However, for that, correct theoretical insight is the absolute precondition." The further theoretical development, of which Lukács speaks at another place, is to be directed by the compulsive choice exercised by the organizational questions; but as far as the masses, which are mediatized, are concerned, the theory is an unassailable objective authority.

Organizational questions are not primary things. Between them and an objective philosophy of history Lukács has established a direct relationship. Stalinist praxis has furnished the fatal proof that a Party organization which proceeds instrumentally and a Marxism which has degenerated into a science of apologetics complement each other only too well.

During the last few years Oskar Negt has undertaken some unorthodox considerations on the question of organization. But if I understand him correctly, he himself still remains captive within the tradition in which the formation of theory and the organization of enlightenment have not been separated from the compulsions of strategic action with sufficient rigor. The autonomy of theory and enlightenment, however, is required for the sake of the independence of political action. No theory and no enlightenment can relieve us of the risks of taking a partisan position and of the unintended consequences involved in this. Attempts at emancipation, which at the same time are attempts


to realize the Utopian contents of the cultural tradition, can, under certain circumstances be rendered plausible as practical necessities, taking into consideration the conflicts generated by the system (which have to be explained theoretically) and the avoidable repressions and suffering. But such attempts are also tests; they test the limits within which human nature can be changed and above all, the limits of the historically variable structure of motivation, limits about which we possess no theoretical knowledge, and in my view, cannot in principle possess any. If in testing "practical hypotheses" of this kind, we, the subjects involved, are ourselves included in the design of the experiment, then no barrier between experimenter and subjects can be erected. Instead, all the participants must have the opportunity to know what they are doing—thus, they must form a common will discursively.

There are situations in the face of which such considerations are either scurrilous or simply ridiculous; in such situations we must act as best we can—but then without appealing to a theory, whose capacity for justification does not extend that far.

SOURCE: Habermas, Jürgen. Theory and Practice. Translated by John Viertel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. This is a section from the "Introduction: Some Difficulties in the Attempt to Link Theory and Praxis" (1971) (pp. 1-40), pp. 32-37.

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