She died while swimming in Lake Balaton, in her beloved Hungary. The end of Agnes Heller’s life was marked by the same spontaneous and joyful naturalness that was her defining trait. A small and frail-looking person, she was a survivor of the Budapest ghetto in 1945. She was only 15, and almost her whole family was exterminated. “Freedom for me has always meant liberation from Nazism,” she said.
That traumatic experience left her with a profound attachment to life. She wanted to live it each day to the fullest, enjoying every opportunity she had been given, but never shying away from the responsibility it implied. Perhaps that was the reason her unique personality as a philosopher shone through from every small gesture, every smile, every joke and every answer she gave. Her thinking was at one with her way of life.
Behind her outward frailty, one could perceive an extraordinary strength that carried her through the extremely long 20th century, in which almost nothing was left unsullied. After the Shoah, there was yet another event she would never forget: the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. At that time, Heller was already an assistant to György Lukács. Together with many dissidents, she was subjected to investigations, trials, successive ostracisms and rehabilitations. The climate of hostility grew and grew, until, after 1968 and the Prague Spring, the situation became untenable. Accused of revisionism along with other members of the “Budapest school,” she had to leave Hungary for good in 1977 together with her husband Ferenc Fehér, with whom she co-authored several books. That was how she began what she called, with some good-natured irony, her “years of pilgrimage”: first in Australia, then in the US, where she held Hannah Arendt’s former chair for many years at the prestigious New School for Social Research in New York.
She was proud of being a woman, of feeling and thinking like a woman. This is precisely why she was critical toward misunderstood forms of “emancipation,” which behaved as if the point was to take power by imitating men. True liberation, along with a different relationship to power, is yet to be achieved. In this context, however, she was a consistent critic of the political realm, pointing out that the Left has not entrusted itself to the leadership of women, even though the first politically influential women were those who were active in the socialist movements.
That is why it is almost an insult to categorize her—as some have hastily done—as “a student of Lukács.” She could not stand the idea of neatly classifying thought according to labels, and did not identify with any of the many “-isms” that have been attributed to her. Most importantly, she never wanted to be considered a mere “dissident,” and has never allowed herself to be used by neoliberalism. Those who are talking about her in such terms nowadays are doing her an injustice. She tried to present the complexity of her intellectual path in her 2010 book A Short History of my Philosophy, published in Italian by Castelvecchi in 2016.
Her relationship with Marx’s thought deeply influenced her own thinking. The result was the trilogy of works for which she soon became well known: A Radical Philosophy, The Theory of Needs in Marx and Towards a Sociology of Knowledge of Everyday Life. In the ‘70s, Heller, starting from the arguments of Marx in the Manuscripts, identified the “radical needs”: a meaningful life, rewarding work, study, the need for free time—which are the needs that cannot be met in an unjust society, precisely because they aim a radical liberation. The alienating needs are the very opposite, from the insatiable consumption of goods to subtle conformism, which always create additional subjection. So, what kind of “freedom” is neoliberalism actually proposing?
This is the turn that one can see so clearly in Heller’s radical philosophy: it’s useless to think of a revolution imagined as the storming of the Winter Palace and wait for it to change your life—the form of life must already change while waiting for the revolution. We must break out of this vicious circle that philosophy cannot and is not allowed to become aware of. Back then, it was not at all obvious to talk about “forms of life.” One can see why Heller found herself at home among the intellectuals of the New Left: critical, radical, truly libertarian, internationalist. “Today we are saying, often and willingly, that the New Left has been defeated,” she wrote in 2013. “But this is nonsense. What is the meaning of ‘defeat’ that this would imply?” If the dreams have not been realized, that does not mean that the idea of the revolution is a lie. There is still hope to accelerate that which is effectively possible to achieve.
She never backed down from a fight—neither in philosophy nor in politics. As she wrote in her 1990 book Beyond Justice: “Just, righteous people exist. What makes them possible?” This question led her over the years to develop a complex moral philosophy. The third and highly valuable volume of the series, An Ethics of Personality, published in 1998, has been published in Italian by Mimesis in 2018. According to Heller, one can choose oneself only thanks to another: this describes the adventure of each person’s life, woven from so many stories that are reconstructed every day. One might say that life itself is the guiding thread running through her radical philosophy.
In recent years, she had returned to Hungary, where she became a strong leader of the political opposition against Viktor Orbán. She wrote articles, gave interviews, took part in debates and demonstrations in the streets. She was shocked by the resurgence of anti-Semitism, and alarmed by the nationalistic and authoritarian forces which might end up breaking up the political and cultural project of Europe, in which she never stopped believing.
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