The Example of Agnes Heller, 1929–2019

The Example of Agnes Heller, 1929–2019

Heller, like Dissent’s founders, believed in making an unjust world a little better, while recognizing that justice could never be complete.

Ágnes Heller with Jürgen Habermas in 2014 (Európa Pont/Flickr)


Marxist humanism was the subject of our first conversation. It was 1986. Philosopher Agnes Heller, who died in July in her native Hungary, had been the leading student of Georg Lukács (1885–1971), the most important Marxist philosopher after Marx, despite a tortured relation with the Hungarian Communist Party.

Heller had arrived in New York to become Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School. I simply called her up, told her that I was writing on Lucien Goldmann (1913–70), the Romanian-French Marxist humanist who championed Lukács’s early work in 1950s and 1960s France. She had known Goldmann, and I wanted to discuss a debate she had had with him. “Meet us tomorrow in the lobby,” she said. I found her there with her husband and collaborator, Ferenc Fehér.

She was small of physical stature but teemed with ideas; he, taller, with a greying, receding hairline, was filled with pensive observations. I had scores of questions and was a bit daunted when, to my surprise, they first had many for me, a mere assistant professor: How—and why—had I become interested in socialist humanism? What did I think of the younger Lukács’s treatment of tragedy and Goldmann’s in his book on Pascal and Racine? And what of today? Can humanist values be sustained, even if a lot in Marx couldn’t be?

Finally, I asked, somewhat gingerly, about the 1968 symposium organized by Goldmann at Royaumont, a famous French site for intellectual exchanges, this one including Theodor Adorno. Heller and Goldmann ended up debating Lukács’s aesthetics. Lukács had a relatively constricted view of realism in literature, although his essays on Balzac, Zola, and Mann were often penetrating and—usually—qualitatively distinct from “party-line” socialist realism. Heller defended her mentor’s arguments for a novel that disclosed artistically a society’s nature through convincing characters and their circumstances. Goldmann demurred from the older Lukács’s disdain for surrealism, Brecht, the “New Novel,” and other avant-garde efforts.

“Goldmann was right, I was wrong,” Heller told me. This straightforward comment taught me a great deal about her: she thought about things again and again; if this led to reevaluation and to changing her mind, so be it. Soon I became a friend, joining Heller and Fehér at parties they hosted in their home, then in Chelsea, where an array of scholars and intellectuals gathered. My conversations with her continued, if sporadically, through her return to Budapest after 1989.

The last time I saw Agnes was autumn 2018 at a “pre-ninetieth” birthday celebration in Manhattan (she would transcend octogenarian status in Budapest in May; Ferenc died in 1994). This time, when I nudged her away briefly from well-wishers, we did not discuss Marxist humanism, but the miserable state of post-communist Hungarian politics. She was a fierce foe of Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government, which boasts of its “illiberal democracy.” Laws had been passed that, step by step, were creating what Heller called a “quasi-dictatorship”: the press pressured, election laws twisted, the Central European University besieged, all in the name of a crude nationalist populism (“Hungarianism”).

Discouraging, she said, shaking her head. For all Orbán’s anti-communism, I noted, he seems to follow Stalinist salami tactics, slicing off liberal protections one after the other. “Yes,” she said, “on behalf of his own power and to produce an imaginary, pure Hungarian sausage. For him, everything must be Hungarian this or Hungarian that, all unpolluted by foreign, ‘globalist’ taints.” Nationalists had attacked Lukács, born Löwinger, for not being truly Hungarian; now Heller, no longer a Marxist, along with George Soros, a financier, were subject to a refrain that was neither new nor distinctly Hungarian. For centuries Jews have been branded “not really” of this or that nation.

Heller, like many Hungarians, had been hopeful after 1989. But in the Orbán era she had been badgered and subjected to scurrilous accusations. “Hungarianism” has shuttered the Lukács Archives, which were in his apartment by the Danube. His statue was removed from a park at the bidding of a member of the Budapest City Council in Jobbik, a party even more chauvinist than Orbán’s Fidesz, but with the latter’s support. Heller’s name is on the petition protesting these churlish actions, but not because she remained a Lukácsian (she left Marxism-Leninism decades ago). She spoke for freedom of inquiry, against policies reminiscent of those once pursued by Stalin’s thuggish culture commissar Andrei Zhdanov, and, surely, to express her residual debt to her teacher. She was a founder of the Lukács Archives International Foundation, which is battling to save his papers. (Full disclosure: I also signed a petition of some 1,600 people supporting the besieged archives, having done research there in 1987.)

In short, Heller dissented from nationalist bunkum as she once did from Communist Hungary’s “scientific” party line. The success of liberal democracy, she thought, depended on building secure liberal-democratic institutions; it was in this task that post-1989 Hungary had stumbled. Yet she identified firmly as a Hungarian patriot. Individuals were neither inherently good nor bad, she determined, and the same was true for nations. But governments could facilitate the expression of a population’s worst instincts, especially since nation-states were more “egotistical” than other kinds of states.

Politics, however, was not everything. The rest of our conversation was about music and opera, our shared passions. We discussed productions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, that massive work raising questions about power, humanity, and self-deception. A strange thing about Lukács, she remarked: “He didn’t listen to music.” Culture was literature for him. “And this was someone whose sister received piano lessons in their home from Béla Bartók.”

He was single-minded; she became pluralism-minded.


A glance at Heller’s life shows why she liked a quote by Novalis, the German romantic, which Lukács cited in his pre-Marxist Theory of the Novel: “Philosophy is really homesickness. It is the urge to be at home everywhere.”

She was born in Budapest in 1929 and barely survived the Second World War. Her father died in Auschwitz and she and her mother dodged execution. Her life as a philosopher, she said, was due to a need to fathom the great evil that had surrounded her, and to pay a debt of understanding to those who did not survive.

There was also an impulse to redemption. At age fifteen Agnes joined the Zionist movement and trained in a summer camp with an eye to going to Palestine. Notions of community and the moral equality of all work seem to have taken hold in her imagination then. In Beyond Justice (1987) she still expressed appreciation for the kibbutz as a collective way of living that also created a “background condition” for individual autonomy. What she called her own “personality problem”—wanting to be both a collectivist and an individualist—seems, at least to me, more an admirable conundrum. She identified as a Hungarian, a Jew, a woman, and a philosopher. (That is not a rank order.)

She didn’t go to Palestine. Inspired by a biography of Marie Curie, Heller entered the University of Budapest to study chemistry and physics. After attending Lukács’s lectures on culture, however, she decided to be a philosopher. She joined the Communist Party in 1947, attracted by its calls for equality. It was not yet in power, although with Moscow’s backing it soon would be, establishing a dictatorship under brutal party chief Mátyás Rákosi. It had “offered an earthly redemption” that turned out to be a swindle. She was soon expelled.

Heller became a Marxist who was, in her words, “hostile to Hungarian communism.” She wrote her doctorate under Lukács’s direction, became his assistant, and then rejoined the party in 1954. Circumstances had changed. Imre Nagy had come to power (or rather, went in and out and in and out of it). This party stalwart transformed into a reformer, opening up the society and prison cells, all while in protracted struggles with the still potent Stalinists.

Nagy emerged as the key figure in the 1956 Revolution, which was snuffed out brutally by Soviet tanks after it began replacing one-party rule with a multi-party system, dissolved the secret police, and exited the Warsaw Pact. He was arrested, tried, and executed. (The 1956 Institute, a historical research center established after Nagy was reburied with honors in 1989, today faces absorption into the nationalist project—while right-wingers forget that Nagy remained a communist.)

Lukács, who had been forced numerous times to reverse, humble, and debase himself for his “deviationism,” was Nagy’s minister of culture. He too was arrested after the Soviet invasion and was then imprisoned in Count Dracula’s castle in Romania. While he had previously criticized Kafka’s writings, afterward he reportedly quipped that, well, perhaps Kafka was a realist. Lukács eventually returned to Budapest under house arrest, still insisting on his Leninism. He once made the craven assertion that the worst socialism was always preferable to the best capitalism (this appalled many sympathizers who asked: was living under Stalin better than under, say, Swedish Social Democrats?). Heller called him an “inconsistent Bolshevik” who always imagined he was the “authentic” one.

Heller, like Lukács, embraced the Revolution. That fierce, bloody struggle was “the most important political experience of my life,” she said. While she later integrated Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism into her own thinking, Heller demurred from Arendt’s understanding of the events in Hungary. Arendt saw in them a moment of direct democracy, when people stepped out of routines into the public realm. Heller found this too romantic, the result of Arendt’s desire “to derive absolute theoretical conclusions from the history of ten days.” Her fellow Hungarians had actually fought for representative democracy and independence. Heller came to believe that “pure democracy”—democracy without “safeguards”—devolves into “pure terror.”

After 1956 Moscow loyalists took charge of Hungary. Heller lost her university position and was again banished from the party. Eventually, repression relaxed into “goulash communism.” Its premise: living standards would rise, dependent on political quiet. There wasn’t much choice and many acquiesced, but the “Budapest School” of philosophers and sociologists—Heller and other Lukács students—was uninterested in trading intellectual vocations for better dinners. Allowed sometimes to travel abroad—thus the regime could demonstrate liberality—their ideas were unwelcome at home. Heller participated in the “Korçula Summer Seminars” on an island off Yugoslavia where “critical Marxists” discussed alternatives to official doctrine. She met Jürgen Habermas and Goldmann there. She was also attracted to the idea, popular especially in France at the time, of revolution in everyday life.

Matters deteriorated when Lukács, Heller, and their colleagues dissented from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. And after Lukács’s death in 1971, his students no longer had his international prestige as a shield. The result: the “Philosophers’ Trial.” The party proposed a “scientific” interrogation of the Budapest School’s Marxism. Heller and her comrades replied, in her words, that “we would be happy to participate in a public discussion. . . . But we cannot participate in a discussion which is organized by the Party, is open to only those whom the Party invites, and, in addition, the purpose [of which] is to discuss our faulty ideas.” Censured for “right-wing deviationism,” members of the Budapest School found themselves stalked, harassed, and jobless. Yes, Kafka was a realist.

Exile became the sole option for Heller, first in Australia in 1977, then in New York. Before, during, and after exile, she wrote book after book, article after article. Titles of just some, often collaborations with her husband and others, displayed her scope: The Theory of Need in Marx, Renaissance Man, Dictatorship over Needs, The Postmodern Political Condition, Beyond Justice, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Immortal Comedy.


Wherever Heller lived, she refused to play “by the rules of the game,” as she put it. While many people—too many, alas, on the left—claim to be “critical” thinkers yet somehow always confirm their own starting points, she believed that meaningful deliberation changes you. Little wonder that she sometimes provoked real discomfort.

For instance, she declared that she was not a feminist. This didn’t come from a notion of male superiority. Her explanation worked on a different plane: she would, she said, never again identify with any “ism.” “Isms,” whether feminism, Leninism, or “Hungarianism,” restricted independence of thought, inflicted unexamined categories on the imagination, and air-brushed inconvenient matters. Egalitarians who identified with Jacobinism, she noted pointedly, forget what had to be recalled: the Jacobins executed Olympe de Gouges, who demanded of French revolutionaries a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman.” It was denial of freedom that had prevented women in the past from becoming great philosophers or culture creators, Heller judged, and freedom always means the ability to make independent choices. “Isms” block that ability; the true importance of women’s movements for her was in breaking blockages.

Her “post-Marxist” positions represented an appreciation for existential thought yet also, in a strong residual sense, the abiding influence of socialist humanism’s emphasis on individual development through community. She spoke of herself as having been “thrown into the world,” a phrase echoing Heidegger and Sartre. But if freedom meant making yourself by your choices, you were still born into a pre-existing world of social, economic, and political relations. Moreover, she continued to maintain in Beyond Justice that all labor was morally equal: “The doctor’s work is not ‘more important’ than the plumber’s; the prime minister’s work is not ‘more important’ than the farmer’s, for all are equally necessary to social reproduction.” Higher remuneration of some kinds of labor compared to others “has absolutely nothing to do with intrinsic ‘usefulness’ of different kinds of work.” It has a lot to do with structures of domination in a society. Moreover, riches do not bring human fulfilment, she insisted; and they hardly made reciprocity—an important word for her—less important.

It was always a dangerous illusion, she also contended, to believe that you stand at a privileged point in history. Bolshevism showed this as much as the collapse of communism. “I don’t think that the philosophical model of Karl Marx necessarily leads to the Gulags,” she wrote in 1998, any more than “Nietzsche has to do with Nazism.” The problem was not, to use her own philosophical phrasing, wrong “appearances” but the essence of Marxist-Leninist parties.

Challenging domination with a “totalizing discourse” leads too easily into other forms of oppression. Her “out of joint” assertions led to charges by less subtle minds that she had fled Marx for “neoconservatism” or “postmodernism.” If it meant abandoning “totality”—a crucial word in Lukács’s most influential book, History and Class Consciousness (1923)—she could accept a “postmodern” designation, with caveats. In simplest form, premodern politics was static, she thought, and reduced complexities to “Oneness.” Modernity was pluralistic, dynamic, and harbored different “logics.” Postmodern political thinking could encompass multiple and contradictory forms of politics, some liberating and some not. Like Habermas, Heller spurned irrationalist and anti-Enlightenment proclivities in many postmodern thinkers. But while he spoke of the Enlightenment’s unfinished project, she proposed that it could not and should not be complete. She preferred to speak of modernity as open-ended, suffused by contingencies and therefore possibilities. Justice would always be incomplete, presupposing neither a final architecture nor fundamental moorings. If we’ll never create perfect justice, we can make the world “a little more just,” especially by civic courage. “Ethical-political justice” had to embrace “radical tolerance,” together with solidarity and taking “responsibility as a citizen.” All needs had to be “recognized” except those that turned other human beings into “mere means” to other ends.

Practically speaking, this led her to support the European Union, to oppose the homogenizations of populism, and to reject illiberalism. She did so while engaging and reengaging very diverse thinkers, from Arendt and R. G. Collingwood to Heidegger and Hume. She had a dialogue about Marx with Derrida. She admired Edmund Burke’s aesthetics, not his politics.


In the mid-1990s some Dissent editors participated in a colloquium at Princeton on democracy. Formidable papers were presented by a luminous cast including Heller, Habermas, Michael Walzer, and Eric Hobsbawm.

After a long day of deliberations, I beheld an unusual scene in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying: Heller and Habermas, face to face, in heated but friendly dispute. Guests checked in and out. Hotel staff, waiters, and bellhops bustled about. None, I am sure, had a clue who these distinctly accented figures were, let alone the subject: Heidegger. Was he a great philosopher, despite his sins? (Heller.) Or did he purvey “bad religion”? (Habermas.) It was not about politics: they were both contemptuous of Heidegger on that. The disagreement concerned other philosophical matters, like “being” and “time.”

Observing their exchange, I mused about what Irving Howe, Dissent’s founding spirit who had died not too long before, might have made of it. His patience for philosophizing was notoriously limited. (When endurance waned, he would twirl some hair on the back of his head.) Still, when it came to politics he wanted thinkers of Heller’s and Habermas’s caliber in Dissent. Like him, they had recognized the damage wrought by illiberalism and anti-humanism on the left but eschewed “fessing up” and rushing to the opposite side of the political spectrum in response to the left’s travails. Self-applauded conversion did not constitute rethinking.

When Heller crossed paths with Dissent, it was a meeting of a central European intellectual with the left-wing of the New York intellectuals. There were similarities and differences, in styles of argument as well as experience. Facing Russian tanks was not quite the same as fighting U.S. Stalinists, but McCarthyism and the Budapest Philosophers’ Trial emitted a common stink. Howe had transcended Trotskyism, Heller Lukácsianism. While journals like Telos, Thesis Eleven, Praxis International, or Constellations were home for many of her philosophical concerns, Dissent became a political home.

Dissent had longstanding ties to Hungarian dissidents and supported the 1956 Revolution forcefully. It published articles by dissidents from the Soviet bloc, some smuggled out. When Howe sent me to Budapest to cover the end of communism in 1989, I discovered that Dissent was renowned among opposition intellectuals as the small magazine with left-wing values that dissented stubbornly from dictatorships exploiting left-wing language.

It was natural that Heller and Fehér came into the Dissent world. She had concluded that an unjust world had to be made a little better all while recognizing that justice could never be complete. Howe, an American liberal socialist who wrote an autobiography entitled A Margin of Hope, insisted in his last Dissent article on two cheers but never three for utopia. The positions were not identical, but both came of learning a great deal from the unhappy twentieth century. Sometime in the late 1980s, Heller, Fehér, Howe, and I had dinner together on the Upper West Side to discuss politics and writing for Dissent. Soon “Agi” and “Feri,” as friends called them, were in our pages addressing topics ranging from the socialist idea to Gorbachev’s tribulations. They joined the editorial board.

It was evident that Howe made a profound impression on them. In a memorial symposium devoted to him in Dissent’s Fall 1993 issue, Heller and Fehér noted Howe’s dislike of Lukács—“too patrician, too abstract, and too compromised.” Yet for them Howe “embodied a Lukácsian maxim: real courage is not displayed in standing up to the schoolteacher but in saying ‘no’ to classmates who have transgressed one’s deepest moral and political convictions. He was alien to any form of mob socialism.”

That is, the left had to be heir to, not the foe of, what was best in classical liberal values. Not Reagan, not Thatcher, not commodification of the world, but equality before the law and the autonomy of the individual. Together with solidarity, reciprocity, and egalitarianism.

They went on about Howe: “His gestures of friendship were filled with a unique refinement; he lacked all the false grandeur of European mandarins.” His “nobility” was “a personal accomplishment, not that of a caste of notables and celebrities.”

It is nearly impossible to find better words than these to characterize and pay homage to Agnes Heller.

Mitchell Cohen co-edited Dissent from 1991 to 2009 and is professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. His books include The Politics of Opera, The Wager of Lucien Goldmann, and Zion and State.

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