Defending What is Yet to Come: Towards a Critical Theory of Democratic Defense

Project: Dissertation

Project Details


The idea that democracy should be able to defend itself against anti-democratic actors has recently regained currency. This dissertation project reconstructs the history of the idea of defending democracy and develops a retheorization that utilizes historically specific conceptual resources drawn from critical theory.

The dissertation project interprets the trajectory of democratic defense, from militant democratic formulations before the Second World War to contemporary theories, as indicative of a transformation of institutionally conservative thinking in the course of the 20th century. While early, substantially conservative theories of democratic defense resolve the field of tension between transformation and conservation in favor of the latter, later theories contain and harness transformation to enable conservation. This progressive institutional conservatism is normatively problematic because it does not hold immanent normative justifications for conservation.

On the basis of this reconstruction, the dissertation project asks the question whether the defense of democracy can be retheorized in “critical” ways – in ways that maintain the possibility of a radical transformation beyond the existing order. Approaching also this question reconstructively, it reads the early critical theory of the “Horkheimer circle” as a historically concrete alternative to militant democracy. Developed in a shared historical space but displaying little conceptual overlap, both militant democracy and early critical theory were explicitly invested in the defense of democracy. Putting them into historical dialogue opens up pathways for a retheorization of democratic defense.

Developing such a retheorization is the final aim of the dissertation. It implies a rethinking of critical theory, both as a historical tradition of thought and as a contemporary practice. To avoid arriving at a resigned recourse to the ostensibly paradoxical character of democratic defense, at a mere eulogy to early critical theory, or at a lopsided emphasis on radical political openness, this rethinking specifically needs to ponder the historically specific normative resources of critical theory, especially with respect to the relationship between negativity and positivity that they express.

Layman's description

The idea that democracy should be able to defend itself against anti-democratic actors has recently regained currency. Today’s calls for defending democracy usually draw on theories that were developed before and during the Second World War. The dissertation project shows that there is a development from theories that hinder any changes to existing institutions to theories that use democratic change as a means for maintaining certain basic institutions. The problem of theories that encourage change but restrain it at the same time is that they cannot justify such restraint themselves. To address this shortcoming, the dissertation project looks at the normative resources that a critical retheorization of democratic defense might hold. It shows that early critical theory, developed at the same time as prominent theories of democratic defense, was interested in the defense of democracy. But it developed an approach to defending democracy that differs from that of theories of democratic defense. An important difference is that critical theory emphasizes radical transformation of the existing order. Bringing critical theory and theories of democratic defense together, the dissertation project develops a new theory that moves beyond both.
Effective start/end date2020/09/01 → …

UKÄ subject classification

  • Political Science

Free keywords

  • Democratic defence
  • Democratic theory
  • Critical Theory
  • Frankfurt School
  • Authoritarianism