Book Reviews

Democracy Between the West and “the Rest”

Marie-Josée Lavallée, University of Montréal, Canada

Review of Albertus, Michael, and Menaldo, Victor, 2018. Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy, New York – Cambridge.

Those who believe that actual democracies are, and strive to be, as true as possible to the classical definition of democracy as an expression of the power of, by, and for the people, will be disillusioned from the very first pages of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. “Democracy is often an enterprise undertaken by elites and for elites,” write Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo (p. 3). For scholars and interested readers, this book surveys the root causes of contemporary dissatisfaction with democracy.

Democracy has been plagued by corruption, polarization, ineffectiveness, and the privileging of elite interests rather than the people’s will. Moreover, democratic conditions like freedom, equality, and the protection of individual rights have suffered in recent years in many parts of the world in regimes claiming to be democratic. The strong popular support given to overtly populist and right-wing leaders and parties is another recent cause for concern. Disappointment with democracy, disaffection, and blatant rejection are far from new. Is democracy an inherently defective or corrupt regime, a conviction that was widespread during the darkest hours of the last century and was already voiced by some of the greatest minds of antiquity? In fact, democracy has no definite form and can take on different physiognomies, depending on the soil in which it takes root and the conditions in which it grows. When the latter are not favorable, democracy can be a mere label used to lend an aura of legitimacy to autocratic regimes. Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy identifies basic factors that have derailed democracy. The book combines empirical studies and theoretical discussion in order to identify the conditions in which transitions to democracy and democratizations occur and the main structural and circumstantial conditions and impediments that influence that process.

Transitions to democracy result either in an elite-biased or a popular democracy. The outcome depends on the type of regime that prevailed beforehand (referred to by the authors as either “consolidated dictatorship” or “volatile dictatorship”); structural factors like state capacity, the existence of a legislature under autocracy, and autocratic legacies like strong militaries, hegemonic parties, and preexisting political structures; and circumstantial factors. Constitutions are a key element. When the latter is drafted well before the transition, autocratic elites have plenty of room for defining its provisions and thus ensuring that their interests will continue to prevail in the new democratic regime, usually an “elite-biased” democracy. Conversely, a popular democracy will be a more likely outcome when a constitution is written at a time of transition or if the new regime inherits a democratic constitution, as in the cases of Czech Republic and Slovakia, which were parts of former Czechoslovakia. Countries previously subjected to colonial or imperial rule are a different case. Because there is no indigenous regime to overthrow after independence, there is no need of a transition process to create a democratic regime. Even if imperialist elites leave the country afterward, the former occupiers leave behind institutional legacies that plague the flourishing democracy. This is especially the case when independence was initiated by the former colonial power rather than through an indigenous revolution. Newly independent countries are thus likely “to have political legacies imposed on them by their colonial forebears that resemble authoritarian legacies” (p. 249).

The typology of democracy on which the authors rely suffices to show that transitions and the democratization process are often initiated and controlled from above rather than from below, even though this framework can be overly minimalist. There exist so many competing conceptions and experiences of democracy that one must be more specific. The authors’ distinction between elite-biased and popular democracy is based on the mode of selection of leaders and the distribution of suffrage. Popular democracy is said to be more representative, pluralistic, inclusive, and redistributive than its counterpart. However, the actual democratic climate of a given country depends on the prevalence of these criteria. The distinction between democracies “by name” and more popular ones also relies on a set of qualitative criteria, like freedom of speech, civil liberties, opportunities for political action, and popular influence on decisional processes. The authors have no interest in these barometers of democracy, nor in informal institutions like political cultures or ideas. They choose to focus on formal institutions, since the elites make their interests prevail through these channels.

That elite-biased democracy is the most common outcome of transitions and democratization, and that these processes are routine strategies for incumbent political and economic elites in dictatorships to secure their preexisting positions, are crucial observations often neglected by other studies. The chapter devoted to the analysis of these strategies is one of the richest in the book. Two-thirds of the transitions that occurred between 1800 and 2006 inherited a constitution from their autocratic predecessors. In the postwar era alone, this proportion reached 70 percent. This scenario applies to some of the oldest Western democracies, findings that are compatible with the conclusions of the most recent empirical studies.[1]

Acknowledging elites’ designs to make democracy subservient to their own interests greatly contributes to understanding why democracy so often suffers   from unhealthy development and collapse, and fails   to meet people’s expectations. However, this does not require reducing democracy to a mere battlefield for elites’ internecine struggles and intrigues. Most of the data and interpretations put forward in Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy converge toward this conclusion, even though the authors affirm that democracies “do not all disappoint” (p. 99). They go so far as to suggest that even in cases where popular democracies are crafted by “outsiders and economic elites and the masses,” incumbent elites maintain control of the democratization process. Some democracies built upon an autocratic constitution managed to alter it later on, but this was not due to popular pressure and action, according to the authors.

The refusal to recognize that people can play an autonomous and independent role in democratization, a point emphasized in many recent studies, is a weakness of the analysis.[2] Instances were elites’ plans were put in check by a popular vote or action are mentioned, but the logical conclusions do not follow. The masses are depicted as unable to unite, organize, and coordinate by themselves. They “suffer from a serious collective action problem” because they are divided by characteristics like race, ethnicity, and economic status. They also lack the ability to “coordinate on a single focal point or solution to translate their preferences into national political power” (p. 35). Thus, action depends on “mobilization from above” (p. 35), especially on the support of “outsider economic elites” (p. 36). For all these reasons, one cannot expect that the people have the necessary skills “to follow through and orchestrate long-lasting political change of their own” (p. 35). Another bold claim is that revolutions may be triggered or supported by outside groups and elites in a struggle against incumbent elites. Revolution is likely to result in popular democracy and economic redistribution, an outcome elites usually try to avoid.

Progress and popular democracy often rely on conjuncture and chance rather than popular action. An unexpected deterioration of conditions securing elites’ domination, a dictator’s death, an unexpected and large-scale protest action, an economic collapse, currency or debt crisis, or a natural disaster is sometimes the key factor. These types of circumstances serve as limited grounds for improvement, since they elicit initiatives and responses from above. According to the authors, real change is the outcome of institutional and constitutional measures. This was the case in Sweden, the topic of the sixth chapter. Although often celebrated as “the most egalitarian” country, its most admirable features resulted from medium- and long-term developments that were not present from the onset.

The use of different methodological approaches is one of the strongest features of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. Its primary focus is democratic transitions that occurred during the second half the twentieth century, the period referred to as the “third wave of democratization” and to which many empirical studies have been devoted since the mid-1990s, although the authors also reference the history of democratization since 1800 in order to give more depth to their analysis. They draw on empirical data, which they present in charts and tables, from influential studies in the field, and they also use raw data on occasion. In the fourth chapter, the authors use empirical calculations to quantify each of the factors put forward in the book. These tests confirm their thesis that democratic regimes often bear the scars of a previous autocracy. They also use calculations in the fifth chapter, where they explore the evolution from a democracy with an autocratic constitution to one based on a popular sovereignty. They identify the factors that trigger constitutional changes, measure their occurrence, and evaluate their impact. The authors also test their hypotheses on the qualitative level, through case studies. Chapters devoted to Sweden and Chile are intended to verify scenarios and conclusions related to authoritarian legacies. Canada, the Philippines, and Ukraine are used to illustrate the “pathologies” inherited from colonial or imperial episodes in the last chapter of the book (p. 248).

The authors also revisit long-debated issues concerning democratization, as in the connections between economic well-being, economic development or “modernity,” and democracy. Democratic regimes do not automatically foster economic equality, hold the authors. Moreover, autocracies may implement generous public policies to attract popular support and limit their opponents. This strategy is common among rising economic elites in new democracies. Using indicators of democratization current in other studies such as per capita income and total natural resources income per capita, the authors contest the commonly held position that economic modernity fosters democracy. Steady economic growth can stabilize authoritarian regimes. Modernization, according to the authors, enables “incumbent political and economic elites to coordinate for a favorable transition from dictatorship and endow[s] them with the tools to realize it” (p. 56). In other words, economic modernity can help smooth the transition to an elite-biased democracy rather than for a popular democracy. In addition, the impact of imperial and colonial legacies may remain strong. Instead of considering cases from sub-Saharan Africa, where colonialism’s impact has been devastating, the authors focus on former British colonies that are often treated by other scholars as robust democracies and not included in studies of colonialism’s impact on democracy. The same is true for countries that had been occupied by the United States.

The overall impression from Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy is that democracy as a regime of, by, and for the people is a fantasy, despite the authors’ declared intent to avoid a pessimistic reading of events. The book is also an invitation to take full measure of how deeply democracy has been captured by elites, in the hope that this process can be reversed. Despite the overemphasis on elites’ manipulation of democracy and failure to fully appreciate people’s potential for organization and action, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy is an outstanding book. It brings to light crucial elements of why democracy so often fails to fulfill its promises. The variety of methodological approaches enhances the book. The authors address important and long-debated issues while suggesting new explanations and perspectives. This approach serves as an open invitation to other scholars to join the discussion.

[1]. See for instance Scott Mainwaring and Fernando Bizzarro, “The Fates of Third-Wave Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (2019): 99-113; 103-05, 107-08.
[2]. The decisive impact of social movements and popular parties is the common denominator of the essays gathered in the following volume, which explores democratization in most areas of the world: Nancy Bermeo and Deborah J. Yashar, eds., Parties, Movements, and Democracy in the Developing World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

This review was originally published on H-Net : Marie-Josée Lavallée. Review of Albertus, Michael; Menaldo, Victor, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

Strategic Occidentalism and Mexican Fiction

C. J. Enloe 

Review of Sánchez-Prado, Ignacio M. Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market, and the Question of World Literature. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2018. 248 pp.

In this book’s three chapters, Ignacio Sánchez-Prado explores the works of several post-1968 Mexican fiction authors in order to elaborate a new, more comprehensive understanding of the concept of “world literature” and its relationship to literary production in Mexico. Sánchez-Prado seeks to problematize critical treatments of Mexican literature that are rooted in nationalism and cultural specificity, recasting the oeuvres of important Mexican authors in light of their interactions with literary influences from around the globe and with the neoliberal book market. He argues that
individual authors construct their own personal world literatures as a way of contending with a pair of problematic imperatives: first, to project an authentic vision of national identity through their work, and second, to compete for notoriety and commercial success within the publishing market. The book’s title, Strategic Occidentalism, references Sánchez-Prado’s preferred term to denominate these deliberate acts of authorial self-positioning.

Sánchez-Prado does not subscribe to a Damroschian notion of world literature that would include only literary works that circulate transnationally. Instead, he proposes that world literature is fundamentally defined by “the material networks and practices that construct its archives and repertoire” (15). Thus, even works that have not been translated or that have enjoyed only limited circulation abroad can still be considered part of world literature in the sense that they owe their existence to the unique agglomeration of national and international influences that shaped the author’s stylistic and thematic decisions. In accordance with this material focus, close textual readings are not the critic’s primary approach to analyzing the selection of works his book presents (though they are certainly present). Rather, he dedicates significant space to contextualizing the authors’ production within both the Mexican literary canon and a more global context, underscoring relevant elements of their biographies and emphasizing their shifting relationships with different types of publishers over the course of their careers.

Sánchez-Prado presents his seven case studies to the reader in roughly chronological order, underscoring the relationship between different authors in terms of both genealogical legacies and intergenerational shifts. The first chapter is the book’s most in-depth study of an individual author, focusing exclusively on “Mexican literature’s leading cosmopolitan” Sergio Pitol, whose extensive travels and encounters with other cultures and literatures shaped his literary trajectory (25). The critic argues that Pitol’s contributions to translation, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction during the
1970s and 80s established a new, heterodox form of cosmopolitanism and worldly engagement that laid the groundwork for a shift in the understanding of Mexican literature within Mexico and internationally. He shows particular interest in Pitol’s translation of works from literary traditions such as the Eastern European avant-garde and Anglophone modernism, much of which he did while living abroad.

His selection of works to translate—including those of Witold Gombrowicz, Ivy ComptonBurnett, and many others—evidence the construction of an alternative world literature canon consisting of authors who resisted the imperative to write serious, national literature, instead employing unorthodox modernist aesthetics such as estrangement and the carnivalesque. SánchezPrado demonstrates how Pitol’s own fiction draws from the narrative techniques he admired in other national literatures, using these alternative, worldly genealogies as a tool to expand the realm of Mexican fiction beyond the 20th -century tradition of the totalizing political narrative. In both his 1979 short story “Nocturno de Bujara” and his 1984 novel El desfile del amor, Pitol deploys the disorienting intertwining of unreliable narrative threads as a strategy to reveal “the impossibility of using literature to construct memory or meaning” (64).

In the second chapter, Sánchez-Prado turns his attention to the Crack group, a loosely-organized collective of Mexican writers whose fiction, published starting in the mid-1990s, sought to challenge both the existing stereotypes surrounding Latin American literary production and the false dichotomy between high art and commercial literature. As is well known, faced with the challenge of gaining visibility for their work without conforming to the magical realist imperative, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, and Jorge Volpi published the “Crack Manifesto” in 1996, proclaiming their goal to combat what they perceived as the trivialization of literature as a result of market forces. However, the critic argues that, rather than shunning the commercial market, each of the chapter’s featured authors used his own individual set of strategies to insert comparatively dense literary works into this system of circulation.

In his 1999 novel En busca de Klingsor, Jorge Volpi combines a diverse series of elements, including detective fiction, mathematical notions of uncertainty, and a portrayal of Nazism as part of world (not just European) history to create a commercially successful work that is thematically and stylistically complex, and that firmly rejects the national-cosmopolitan dichotomy. Ignacio Padilla’s Amphitryon (2000) also takes up the theme of Nazism in a bid to question literature’s capacity to serve as historical allegory, while his later work La Gruta del Toscano (2006) performs a symbolic Orientalization of Europe, deflecting the exoticism to which Latin American authors and literature have so often been exposed. Finally, Pedro Ángel Palou’s Paraíso clausurado (2000) deploys melancholy and loss as tools to articulate the impossibility of creating a totalizing novel, demonstrating that new narrative possibilities open up when authors are freed from this unattainable imperative.

In the third and final chapter, Sánchez-Prado takes up the examples of three authors who employ distinct tactics to question and redefine what it means to be a “Mexican woman writer” in relation to the conditions of the neoliberal editorial market. He foregrounds his analysis by noting the implicitly gendered nature of the Crack group’s ideological self-positioning: their manifesto responded critically to a process of editorial neoliberalization that coincided with the so-called Boom femenino and enabled the commercial success of oft-maligned romance novelists such as Laura Esquivel. In this
context, the Mexican women writers that Sánchez-Prado presents use strategic  positioning to productively confront the compounded assumptions imposed on them based on their nationality and their gender. He highlights Carmen Boullosa’s history of “deftly navigat[ing] editorial landscapes” by publishing alternately with commercial publishers and more prestigious ones to show how Bourdieusian notions regarding the autonomy of symbolic capital breaks down in the case of women authors for whom commercial success can serve as an antidote to marginality (155).

For her part, Ana García Bergua’s decision to eschew autobiographical tendencies and locate her adventure novel El umbral (1993) outside of traditionally feminized spaces expands the range of narrative possibilities available to women authors, while her mobilization of her identity as the daughter of Spanish exiles disrupts essentializing stereotypes about the cultural specificity of Mexican literature. The final author studied in this chapter, Cristina Rivera Garza, engages with questions of materiality and circulation in various ways, using novels such as Nadie me verá llorar (1999) and La cresta de Ilión (2002) to reveal the gendered silences and omissions that exist within historical and literary archives, while also helping to redefine 21st-century literature’s relationship with new media through her long-running blog, No hay tal lugar.

This book ultimately succeeds in its self-proclaimed attempt to “reclaim the idea of ‘world literature,’” fundamentally reframing Mexico’s participation in global networks by analyzing the plethora of strategies that Mexican authors have implemented in order to challenge and negotiate the imperatives of the neoliberal market and construct their own world literatures in the process (191). While Sánchez-Prado’s work will of course be of interest to his fellow Latin Americanists, and to Mexicanists in particular, the theoretical perspectives he outlines make this book an essential reference for any literary scholars looking to contextualize the works they study within a framework that does not view literature through either a purely national lens or a totalizing global one, but rather embraces the potentiality and plurality of world literatures.

The author is a student of Romance Studies at Duke University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Published originally in TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of
the Luso-Hispanic World 9 (1): 105-108. Permalink Licence CC BY 4.0. Modifications: title added, original cover page omitted, author name relocated before book title, author affiliation expanded relocated in the end of the text, extra paragraph breaks added.

Towards New Forms of Political Democracy in Spain

Few books on populist (grassroots) social movements manage to be both theoretically original and empirically well documented. Richard R. Weiner and Iván López’s Los Indignados: Tides of Social Insertion in Spain (Winchester [UK] Washington [USA], Zero Books, 2018) accomplish this rare intellectual feat.

The authors rigorously analyse the recent history of a major western European nation whose democracy grew out of a transition from an authoritarian regime (Franco’s Spain). As the authors explain, they have been following the developments of Los Indignados, 15-M movement and Podemos from their very beginning. The first two can be described as a large anti-austerity movement that arose as a reaction to high rates of unemployment and economic hardship. Podemos is young a party founded in the aftermath of mass protests to respond to corruption and social inequality.

Being experts in sociology and political science Weiner and López go beyond simply describing the historical development of these movements and their various political consequences. They also present a clear picture of the social forces and actors who played a major role in the new forms of democracy in Spain. As they explain (p. 1),

Following Alain Touraine’s sociology of social movement as an institutionalizing leveraging to reorganize the field of historicity, the authors have been keeping up with Los Indignados for these past four years.

In particular they have explored how new forms of social pacting and non-hierarchical association have been at the forefront of the struggles to “re-embed” the economy and limit the power of the neoliberal economic agenda of various Spanish socio-economic elites.

Weiner and López begin by describing the origins of the Los Indignados. Who exactly are the people behind the movement to make Spanish politics more accountable to the population? They are mainly, though not exclusively

cut off and massively unemployed youth – cut off from the circuits of capital accumulation, workplace habitus, and the pillars of social democracy (p. 9).

This generation, the grandchildren of the Spanish welfare state, are living lives best described by Gilles Deleuze and André Gorz. They exist as a sort of non-class, neither proletariat nor bourgeoisie. They are the result of a dwindling middle-class now living economically precarious lives in an increasingly neoliberal world order.

Yet, as the analysis of Weiner and López convincingly shows, they are not doomed to social nothingness, cut off from political power, what Stiglitz sometimes refers to as a “wasted generation”,

The Indignados movement of Confluence against a perceived unrepresentative and unresponsive Transition State amounts to more than effervescence (p.  12).

This apparently “lost generation” and their movement in Spain have become something, despite their lack of hold on traditional sources of economic and political power, perhaps even because of it.  They have learned to be creative and structure their demands in new, effective and original ways.

Weiner and López also discuss the question of legitimacy and democracy in 21st century Spain and in the context of western democracies generally. They paint a very accurate and poignant picture of the various phases from authoritarian rule to a transitional state form towards something new that has not yet fully developed.

They portray the nature of the distrust towards the major political parties. Weiner and López explain the phenomenon of “social washing”. Parties present themselves as close to the people but serve the interests of economic elites:

They pose insincerely as “socially concerned” in their promotional communication and marketing, while actually operating the other way. It is a manipulating of discourse and legitimation claims in a misleading way. (P. 38)

This type of “social washing” was also widely noted and denounced by the student protesters of 2012 in the province of Quebec (Canada). The student protests spread and eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal party then in power. The difference being that in Spain a large and durable social movement, including a new political party, emerged from the mass social protests.

Another major aspect of this major work in political sociology is their analysis of the question of “social insertion”. How do the people who do not have access to traditional forms of economic and social power manage to organize and become active in the construction of a better and viable future?

The concept of “social insertion” goes back to before the Franco regime. As Weiner and López explain (p. 44),

The concept of “social insertion” has roots in the municipalismo of mutual aid practised by Spanish anarchists […] although it is used in new ways by the Indignados.

The authors also note that there is a tension within the larger social movement and the Podemos party. A tension between organizing outside and around the state or rather attempting to use the State’s “institutionalizing power”.

Weiner and López describe much of what has happened in recent years in Spain as a contemporary form of what Polanyi famously dubbed the “double movement”. (Re)insertion and (re-)embedding are two processes that seem to be happening together and to be supporting each other in the movement presented by Weiner and López.

Beyond resentment, the authors (p. 35) point us to the concept of rhizomatic form of social insertion as a “constitutive provenance,” one articulating “an emergent imaginary” in the precarious, the marginalized and the displaced. There are significant chapters (7, 8 and 11), grounded statistically, that chronicle — in two decades in public opinion polling — a growing mistrust and existential insecurity foreshadowing the legitimation crisis of the post-Franco Transition State.

Los Indignados is a must read book for anyone interested in social movements and who wishes to better understand the mechanisms of social change.

About the authors of the book: Richard R. Weiner is Professor of Political Science at Rhode Island College and Local Affiliate, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Iván López is a Researcher and Assistant Professor at Universidad de Zaragoza.

About the reviewer: Omer Moussaly (PhD, Université du Québec à Montréal) is a postdoctoral researcher at the UNESCO Chair on the Philosophical Foundations of Justice and Democratic Society at UQAM. He is currently writing about the works of Algernon Sidney with the Chair on Critical Antiquity and Emerging Modernity at l’Université Laval.


Western Civilization, Modernity and Reason: An Unavoidable Conflict?

Marie-Josée Lavallée

Review of Jay, Martin. 2016. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Reading Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung for the first time may be a rather disconcerting experience. The authors seem to support without qualification the claim, widely popular since the time of the Great War, that Western Civilization was then experiencing a crisis which could take her straight to her intellectual, spiritual, and even physical destruction. This pessimistic prognosis was only boosted by the catastrophes of the Second World War and Nazism, which were the background of the composition of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s book.

Let’s remind briefly a part of their argument. Enlightenment thinkers had had a strong confidence in the potential of reason to liberate and emancipate human beings. Reason, however, can turn against the latter, and sink into barbarism if its regressive tendencies surface and become dominant. The roots of this regressive process are to be sought in Ancient Greece, where the split between reason and myth occurred. What was happened in the Enlightenment’s century has been a renewal of the struggle between those henceforth old adversaries, but this fight reached new highs.

If the concept of reason was to become central to Critical Theory, reflection on the perplexing multiplicity of reason was current in German thought in these times. The conservative thinkers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, also distinguished between “instrumental reason”, which imposed itself at the same pace as modernity, and “sound reason”, which has been repressed by its instrumental counterpart. This process underlies the surprising affirmation to the effect that reason may have a corrosive effect on human autonomy and freedom.

This type of discussion, however, often lacks theoretical clarification. The distinctions between instrumental reason and sound or critical reason, and universal and subjective reason are often taken for granted and put forward without much explanation. This is precisely the task renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay has set himself in his last book. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory guides the reader throughout the theoretical ambiguities surrounding the concept and its kindred terms (for example, rationality, rationalization, reasonable) by painting a broad history of its philosophical appearances and uses over time. It sheds light in particular on German thought between the end of the 18th century to the last quarter of the 20th century.


Martin Jay (left), in conversation with Richard Wolin. Photo by Joseph van der Naald (licence C BY-SA 4.0).

The author begins his study by exploring the first “Age of Reason” which runs from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment, before considering Kant in a separate chapter. The next one, devoted to Hegel and Marx, introduces a couple of notions which prepare the analysis of discussions of reason by thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter skims over late modernity’s crisis of reason which, having started in the late 18th century reached a high point between 1848 and the unleashing of the Great War, before transforming itself into the “embrace of unreason” from 1914 to the 1940s. These two phases characterized themselves by a decisive “erosion of confidence in reason”.

At each step of his study, Jay distinguishes various layers of meaning tied the concept and underlines the impacts of reason’s coexistence with religion or science. He does not try to build a homogenous history of reason but rather fully confronts the reader to the full range of complexities and contradictions surrounding this notion. While Jay’s perspective is wide, he does not lose himself into subtleties. His synthesis is highly efficient, and will benefit anyone who has an interest in the concept of reason. This is why the book’s appeal does not restrict itself to Frankfurt School’s thinkers’ readers. The latter’s criticisms have attracted a great deal of attention, but one should not read them as their “last word” on reason.

In the chapters of the second part of the book, “Reason’s Eclipse and Return”, Jay analyzes the attempts of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas to “rescue” reason and “defend a viable concept” of the latter. This part, however, lacks balance. The reader could be disappointed by the too synthetic treatment of the first three thinkers, which are grouped together in a single chapter, in spite of the fact that Marcuse would have deserved a full chapter, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas’ thought is treated more in depth, since two chapters are devoted to him.

Besides its contribution to the understanding of the various meanings of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School’s thinkers, and throughout intellectual history, Jay’s book also contribute to reopening wider paths of historical-philosophical investigation, for example on the topic of the modern project’s failure. It also helps to open new research avenues pertaining to our own time, since we must suspect that the conflict between reason and material progress has not come to a close yet.

The author is a Lecturer of History at Université de Montréal, Canada.