By contributing editor Jonathon Catlin
The renowned philosopher and dissident Ágnes Heller died while going for a swim in the Hungarian resort town of Balatonalmádi on July 19, 2019. Her friend and interlocutor Jürgen Habermas, who also turned ninety this year, wrote an obituary for her in which he recalled their meeting at philosophical conferences in the 1960s and praised her “certain vocational calling to philosophy” coupled with “the admirably resolute character of a proud and at the same time courageous and worldly-wise woman.”
I met Heller in Vienna in the summer of 2017 at the conference “Hannah Arendt and the Judgment of Modernity.” She delivered her keynote at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies in a strange room full of illuminated glass cases containing personal effects of the eponymous Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
Banal as they were, these objects served as fitting reminders of an event that preoccupied Heller’s life and thought. She was born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929. Her father used his legal training to help Jews emigrate from Hungary, but was himself deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and murdered there. Heller and her mother survived. She reflected in a 1997 interview:
My father was killed, and many of my childhood friends. So this experience exercised an immense influence on my whole life, particularly on my work. I was always interested in the question: How could this possibly happen? How can I understand this? And this experience of the Holocaust was joined with my experience in the totalitarian regime… So I had to find out what morality is all about, what is the nature of good and evil… Writing moral philosophy and philosophy of history for me then became a way to pay my debt as a survivor to the people who could not survive.
“Her thinking reflects an unusual life,” Habermas observed, “a painful life story in which the age of extremes has left deep scars.” Heller shared many of these experiences and questions of evil with Hannah Arendt, though, as Martin Jay has noted, the two never actually met. On the other hand, their philosophies both emphasize natality, “the fact that human beings are born into the world,” as a source of political renewal and possibility. “What distinguishes [Heller] as a philosopher and in fact connects her with Hannah Arendt,” Habermas wrote, “is her ability to combine an emphasis on uplifting ideas with astonishingly simple pieces of everyday wisdom.”
At the Vienna conference, Heller began with her life story and then turned to Arendt, whose namesake chair of philosophy at the New School she held from 1986 to 2009, and whose namesake prize she was awarded in 1996. Heller liked Hegel’s idea that philosophy is its time expressed in concepts. Her life, more clearly than most, no doubt shaped her thought. She liked how Arendt’s works illustrate the way a thinker’s sense of the present and the future is always shaped by their reading of history. She disliked Arendt’s “Grekomania,” which she “contracted from the Germans.” For Heller, Arendt’s strengths were the essay, not the book, and political rhetoric, not sociology. Arendt tried to persuade her reader to see the world as she did, but rather than giving arguments, she told stories about the world, and in the process developed insightful new concepts. Heller considered Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) a failure, claiming that Arendt shouldn’t have written it for moral reasons. Rhetoric and politics, Heller believed, should not be applied to the Holocaust, and the theory that evil is unthinking is false. She agreed with Arendt that totalitarianism is a form of “anti-politics,” for it closes down all alternatives. Heller admired most Arendt’s insight that the basis of politics is not institutions but action. I will never forget the way “Agi” humbly shuffled into the audience, microphone in hand, to field her own questions.
In 1947 Heller began to study chemistry and physics at the University of Budapest but changed her subject to philosophy and studied under the Marxist thinker György Lukács. “I realized that I didn’t want to be a chemist or physicist,” she later remarked, “I wanted to understand the world.” She has said of her beloved teacher Lukács, “Although often dogmatic in his writings, Lukács was not dogmatic as a professor. He encouraged us to think, to think about everything.”
Heller earned her doctorate in 1955 under Lukács’s supervision and then became his assistant. Soon after came the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which Heller described as “the most important political event of my life because it was the only really socialist revolution in history. It was a revolution that meant liberation in the sense of the American Revolution—that is, independence on the one hand and political liberation on the other.” Her words closely recall Arendt’s On Revolution: It was more than a mere political event, for it represented modern aspirations about what it means to be politically free. Unlike Arendt, though, Heller thought social questions had a place in political revolutions. Heller and Lukács backed the Hungarian independence movement of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, which was crushed by Stalin’s Soviet forces. Heller was again expelled from the Communist Party and dismissed from the university in 1958 for refusing to indict Lukács as a collaborator in the Revolution. Both dissented from the “scientific socialism” then taught in the university’s special department for “Marxism-Leninism,” whose orthodoxy Heller rejected as “a form of religious practice” rather than genuine philosophy. She would thus later claim that she “was never really a Marxist in an orthodox sense.”
In 1963 Heller joined what would later be called the “Budapest School,” a philosophical forum formed by Lukács to promote the renewal of Marxist criticism of actually existing totalitarian socialism. Her work in this period returned to Marx to explore the role of political autonomy and collective determination of social life, transforming society and government from the bottom up, and “everyday life” in non-authoritarian socialism. After Lukács died in 1971, the School’s members became victims of political persecution, being dismissed from their university jobs and subjected to surveillance and harassment. Heller emigrated with her husband Ferenc Fehér to Australia in 1977 and became a philosophy professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne. In 1986 she moved to the New School, where she continued to teach on a visiting basis until 2009. In 1989, with the fall of the communist regime, she returned to Budapest.
Heller wrote and edited over forty books. Some of her most influential works include Towards a Marxist Theory of Value (Telos, 1972), The Theory of Need in Marx (1976; reprinted by Verso in 2018), Everyday Life (1970; Routledge, 1984), Can Modernity Survive? (California, 1990), and A Philosophy of History in Fragments (Blackwell, 1993). As critic Laura Boella characterizes her thought:
Heller’s idea of philosophy is anti-metaphysical and hostile to any philosophy of history or theory of progress. At its core there is “contingency,” defined as the self-consciousness that modernity has acquired in the postmodern age. The present no longer has any kind of continuity with the past, nor promises a transition into the future… Contingency means differentiation, plurality of lifestyles, openness and indeterminacy, the centrality of everyday life, understood as the sphere of experience, from which material and spiritual objectifications depart and to which they return.
As a dissident, Heller was understandably critical of any “totalitarian imagination which promises heaven on earth.” Yet this also made her a reluctant believer in modernity:
The idea of the failure of modernity is a very romantic thing. It assumes that modernity should have been something better, that because it did not provide something better, by definition it failed… Whether it will be possible for modernity to survive is an open question. It is still too early to tell, but at this point we cannot describe it as a failure.
Much of Heller’s work was published by the leftist journal Telos, beginning with her 1970 article “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and The Revolution of Everyday Life.” After moving to Australia, she became active with the leftist journal Thesis Eleven, which she praised as a place for intellectuals like her to share their “non-dogmatic leftist commitments.” In 2016 the journal honored her with a special issue.
Politics was never far from the center of Heller’s life. She first joined the Communist Party in 1947 while at a Zionist work camp, writing in her memoir, “I’d stay loyal for ever to the poor. So, crazy chick that I was, I joined the Communist Party to be with the poor” [Der Affe auf dem Fahrrad (Philo, 1999), pp. 91–2]. She was expelled from the Communist Party for the first time for her “counterrevolutionary” ideas in 1949. In the past several years she has once again become an outspoken critic of authoritarian governance in Hungary, this time that of Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who has targeted her and other Jews and academics with false charges.
Habermas reflected that “Heller did not understand herself as an intellectual; she lived in her own way as a philosopher.” Heller said in Vienna that every great philosopher has had to destroy something that came before them: Marx destroyed politics; Kierkegaard destroyed religion; Nietzsche destroyed metaphysics. Heller made much of the ruins left in their wake, which she saw as an opportunity to tackle ancient issues anew. Her philosophy coupled ethical and conceptual rebuilding with what she called the exhilarating imperative to “destroy new things.”
Ágnes Heller’s century was one that believed too long in the redemptive power of violence. Her moving remembrance of the victims of that era serves as a fitting memorial to her own life as well:
After the end of the catastrophic century we look backwards, not from the plateau of the end of history, but from the flatland of the absolutely historical present. We could enter this absolute present with the empty consciousness of forgetting. Or we could instead practice a kind of remembering, which Hegel first called “Andenken” (reflective remembrance). Remembrance is respect, the respect of thinking. If there is to be mourning, then the respect of thinking is a requiem. I am speaking of a requiem for a century.
Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.