Agnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of History

Agnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of History

by John Grumley


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Agnes Heller is one of the leading thinkers to come out of the tradition of critical theory. Her awesome intellectual range and output includes ethics, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy and a theory of modernity and its culture.

Hungarian by birth, she was one of the best known dissident Marxists in central Europe in the 1960's and 1970's. Since her forced immigration she has held visiting lectureships all over the world and has been the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York for the last twenty years.

This introduction to her thought is ideal for all students of philosophy, political theory and sociology. Grumley explores Heller's early work, elaborating her relation to Lukacs and the evolution of her own version of Marxism. He examines the subsequent break with Marxism and the initial development of an alternative radical philosophy. Finally, he explains and assesses her mature reflective post-modernism, a perspective that is both sceptical and utopian, that upholds a critical humanist perspective just as it critiques contemporary democratic culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745321936
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 02/03/2005
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Grumley is a senior lecturer in the School of Philosophy, University of Sydney. He is the author of History and Totality (Routledge, 1989) and many articles in a range of international journals on issues in contemporary critical theory. He is also the editor of Culture and Enlightenment: Essays for Gyorgy Markus (Ashgate, 2002).

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Lukács, Ethics and Everyday Life

To understand the direction and milieu of Heller's early work we need to locate it within the broad Lukácsian 'Renaissance of Marx' programme. In the Introduction, I mentioned the talented circle of young philosophers and sociologists – the so-called 'Budapest School' – that coalesced around Lukács in the 1960s. His idea of a Marx Renaissance was unmistakably formulated in opposition to what was at that time the official orthodox Marxism of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. This official version of Marxism – diamat – was a vulgar distillation of some of the key ideas from the Second International and Lenin, finally codified by Stalin in the late 1930s. The framework to this orthodoxy was Marxist philosophy – dialectical materialism – as a science of the general laws of reality, nature, society and thought. From this could be drawn the specific scientific disciplines concentrating on the actual laws of natural phenomena and systems. Dialectical materialism was philosophy rather than science; the results of the specialist sciences were synthesised into a uniform worldview and ideology. However, more than just a synthesis, this worldview also provided a set of methodological directives that allowed Stalin, for example, to make judgements within the domain of science. The ideological universality of this philosophy supposedly established the cultural hegemony of the proletariat. In fact it allowed the Communist Party or its leadership, acting as the concrete representative of the workers, to usurp this position. In an analogous way, historical materialism was a science of the general laws of society and history. These operated independently of the intentions and activities of individuals and prescribed deterministically the future march of history; however, knowledge of them could be employed either to modify or to promote actions in harmony with them.

This scientistic understanding of Marx's theory of history was largely inherited from the Second International. The leading theoreticians of German social democracy had viewed Marxism as a value-free positive science capable of describing and explaining the evolution and decline not only of capitalism but also of every social structure. In this respect, Lukács' seminal early reinterpretation of Marxism, History and Class Consciousness (1923), is vital to understanding Heller's initial orientation to orthodox diamat. She and the other members of the Budapest School departed from his alternative Western reading of Marx. The catastrophes of fascism, the Second World War and Stalinism and his own political marginalisation explain the almost four-decade-long interruption between Lukács' first Marxist classic and his eventual return to philosophy and formulation of the programme for a 'Marx Renaissance'. In the late 1920s the party repudiated his theoretical efforts as dangerous left deviations. Nevertheless, foreseeing the looming struggle against fascism he chose to accept this theoretical censorship. He rationalised this decision as a strategic withdrawal for the sake of being on the side of historical progress in what he viewed to be the forthcoming world struggle between capitalism and socialism. He retreated from direct political writings and during the next two decades confined himself to literary theory, history of philosophy and aesthetics. It was during this time that he established his reputation as one of the greatest Marxist literary critics and aestheticians.

In another sense, Lukács' self-criticism was quite genuine. In the late 1920s, he moved to Moscow and helped to prepare Marx's early writings for publication by the Marxism–Leninism Institute. He then realised that his infamous reinterpretation of Marx had been seriously flawed. However, the pervading atmosphere of Stalinist terror made it quite impossible for him to revise his old ideas explicitly. This opportunity did not come until the middle 1950s and the post-Stalinist official repudiation of the so-called 'cult of the personality'. First of all, he completed the mammoth Die Eigenart des Aesthetischen (1963) – a two volume systematic aesthetics – and, finally, he attempted to re-elaborate the philosophical foundations of Marxism. Completed in his old age, this final work, The Ontology of Social Being, was stillborn. It was so severely criticised by his young Budapest School colleagues that Lukács finally decided against publication. He died in 1971 at the age of 86.


Although History and Class Consciousness was seriously flawed, it did lay down the main lines of an influential alternative reading of Marx that would become the foundations of Western Marxism. Against the emerging diamat view of Marxist philosophy as a science of the general laws of reality, Lukács viewed Marxism primarily as a philosophy of praxis. This needs to be understood in the following double sense. Firstly, humanity produces itself and its history, by and through its own activities. Human historical development is not deducible from so-called 'laws' of history. Lukács stresses that, rather than humanity being created by these abstract but supposedly necessary historical laws, historical transformation depends upon social conflict and revolutionary class struggle. Obviously, social conflict is generated by objective social conditions. However, on this view, these social conditions are always the product of human actions. Secondly, Marxism is not value-free science but an enlightened theoretical consciousness playing an active role in the proletariat's struggle to realise communism. It addresses itself to the empirical consciousness of the proletariat as a theoretical distillation of the objective conditions, opportunities and goals of present social struggles. The theoretical and practical implications of this understanding of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis are fairly obvious. Understood in this way, Marxism could not be the preserve of a party elite who laid down to the masses in advance a course dictated by historical laws. History is now viewed as a process of human self-creation in which ideology, consciousness and struggle are pivotal subjective contributions to finely balanced historical situations. In this conception, individual action and political praxis play a decisive role.

With the assistance of Marx's manuscripts, Lukács had easily identified the major error of his own interpretation. He now saw his famous identification of the proletariat as the identical subject/object of history as a Hegelian-inspired idealist deviation. In History and Class Consciousness, he allowed 'class' in the shape of the proletariat to replace Marx's category of 'species being'. The framework of Marx's early manuscripts was a humanist anthropology. For the young Marx, history was a process of human species self-creation through alienated labour. The historical task standing before humanity was ultimately to realise all potential human species capacities. However, in all previous epochs this process has been undertaken in alienated social conditions. The prospect of a revolutionary overcoming of capitalism signifies the conscious transcendence of the epoch of alienation and the end of all historically created contradictions. Lukács incorporated this anthropological framework and commitment to a rich individuality into his subsequent literary criticism. The subsequent prominence of the categories of 'human species' and 'individuality' in his later literary and aesthetic writings stems directly from this pointed self-criticism. His late systematic aesthetics was clearly founded on an explicit philosophy of history. The essence of art is realised in the individuality of the great works themselves. They may be creations of specific historical times and circumstances but they also attain a timeless validity: they are the memories of man. This is Lukács' gloss on the famous passage in which Marx attributed a paradigmatic cultural role to the Greeks as the 'normal childhood' of humanity. The history of art gives expression to the unity of individuality and the species in so far as each great work – as a self-contained individuality – also signifies a historical moment of species achievement. The great works cannot be ordered hierarchically, as they are all eternal: each signifies a stage in the evolutionary unfolding of human species capacities.

The philosophy of history underlying Lukács' aesthetics was conceived in the spirit of hope. In the 'dark times' of the 1930s – with the disappearance of concrete revolutionary scenarios, the victory of fascism, the all-consuming Stalinist terror and the threat of world conflict – he clung to philosophical anthropology. The cathartic experience of great art that unifies individual and species is a defetishising consciousness. It demands that the recipient change her life and presupposes the possibility of overcoming the fetishism of everyday life. Yet such an anthropological 'guarantee' remains merely an 'ought': it is without immediate political pay-off or historical prospect. History was now reinforcing the lesson of History and Class Consciousness. Any attempt to posit direct identities between concrete individualities like the proletariat and the total historical process involved irresolvable theoretical impasses.

The short period of de-Stalinisation after 1953 allowed Lukács to think of returning to his old philosophical interests. The changed political conditions momentarily also loosened theoretical possibilities. However, these plans were soon shattered by the Russian overthrow of the reformist Nagy regime. His late symbolic entry into the Nagy government as a minister for education earned him several years of exile to Romania and delayed his return to 'great philosophy'. When he did finally return, he explicitly took up the rejuvenating philosophy of the young Marx. For Lukács, this foundation became an almost unquestionable absolute. On this view, Marx had produced a revolution in philosophy by resolving the basic contradictions of bourgeois ontology: the antinomies of subject and object, causality and teleology and freedom and necessity. Marx's anthropology would serve as the foundation of a new understanding of man and his relations with the surrounding environment. At the same time, an authentic philosophy of praxis would aid in the overcoming of the 'distortions' induced by the period under the 'cult of the personality'. The broad outlines of the first aspect of this 'Marx Renaissance' were worked out in Lukács' Ontology of Social Being. Yet, this left many remaining lacunae and openings in this programme. There was scope to both extend and enrich Marx's insights, to break new ground in domains Marx had scarcely had time to consider, and to apply his basic principles to newly emergent problems, both in theory and practice.

To consider Heller's early Marxist works in biographical sequence would take up too much space. I shall confine my treatment of these early Hungarian works to an account of her main interests and the way they fitted into the Lukácsian programme for the 'Renaissance of Marx'. Although she never mentions Marx in the titles of her books until The Theory of Need in Marx (1976), all her works contributed in various ways to the broad aims of this programme. Even her treatment of apparently solely theoretical issues, such as values and instincts, is just as charged with critical intent and practical relevance as her consideration of the more concrete and politically explosive topics of ethics, revolution and everyday life. In the whole of this Marxist phase, Heller moves towards the construction of her own philosophical identity in a climate dominated by the tensions between the promise and the reality of 'really existing socialism'. She is gradually drawn from a defence of the 'authentic' Marx to eventually recognising the tensions and shortcomings in Marx himself.


Heller's contribution to a Festschrift for Lukács' eightieth birthday is entitled 'The Moral Mission of the Philosopher'. This is a good place to start an exposition of Heller's Marxist phase, because it elaborates her initial understanding of philosophy in the broadest possible terms. This short essay both serves as a homage to Lukács and asserts the essential link between philosophy and a presupposed Marxian telos of history. Heller aims to define the philosophical attitude. This requires more than the sort of abstraction that would produce a sociological type. To go beyond the plurality of empirical types of philosopher, it is necessary to introduce the concept of representation. This is a category not of ideals but of essence expressing the substance of human progress. The demands of the day call into being a fundamental and basic passion which orientates the totality of an individual's behaviour. In the case of the philosopher, this basic organising passion is the unity of thinking and personal conduct. The possibility of such a passion has existed since classical Greece, when processes of social differentiation separated theory and practice. These processes also saw the simultaneous emergence of the autonomous personality. In this new constellation, philosophy holds out the promise of a possible eventual reconciliation in everyday life. In Socratic mode, Heller views the philosopher as the guardian of substance; he (sic) represents that which was in danger of being lost but can never be completely lost. However, Heller gives this substance a Lukácsian historicist twist; it persists despite dynamism and contradictory development. In an image strikingly opposed to Nietzsche's view of philosophers as lonely giants living on summits and calling to each other across the ages and wastelands of ordinary folk, she transforms these same summits into a continuous ideal line in human development. The philosopher represents that substance which in the present may only be captured by the exceptional personality, yet is inherently general, at least in its potentiality. She argues that philosophers are no aristocratic caste but only one aspect of an infinitely rich human substance. Reinforcing this point, she maintains that however great the discrepancy between philosophy and everyday life, the link between the two is unbreakable. The measure of the really great philosopher is in fact his striving to reduce this discrepancy and to restore unity. However much Heller will later come to revise her views on social differentiation, this belief in the unbreakable link between philosophy and the everyday will be a cornerstone of all her later thinking.

What is meant by this unity of personal conduct and Weltanschauung? It means that the philosopher's conduct follows from his thinking, principles and values. There is no hint of transcendence in this thinking. For Heller, the key to the riddle of humanity is humanity itself; she insists that philosophical thinking must be immanent and earthly. Just as substance itself is subject to the vagaries of historical development, she maintains that the character of this unity will also change. While the figure of Socrates could represent the direct realisation of this unity in his everyday inquisitions of friends at the Agora, the textual objectification of philosophy made this no longer possible. As a result, the requirement of immediate unity is sacrificed. On the one hand, the theory must reflect reality. Clearly Heller has something other than 'correspondence' in mind here. The reality aspired to by the philosopher is more the 'actual' of Hegel's becoming rationality. On the other hand, she still insists that a moment of personal commitment is essential to philosophical truth. Already here we can see the germ of a view that will make her so sympathetic to the process of subjectivisation that she will later write it into the history of modern philosophy. The philosopher must take responsibility for his views. The philosopher must be prepared to own his personal and theoretical past in a way that is never required of the artist or the scientist. In unpacking this unity as personal responsibility and truth content, she suggests that it has both external and internal aspects. The former requires the endeavour to realise ideas in the world. The philosopher must be a teacher. Internally, the philosopher must become a living embodiment of his ideology by ordering his personal existence in accord with its prescriptions.


Excerpted from "Agnes Heller"
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Copyright © 2005 John Grumley.
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Table of Contents

Dark Times, the Existential Choice and the Moral Mission
Section 1: The Renaissance of Marx
1: Lukacs, Ethics and Everyday Life
2: Towards a Philosophical Anthropology
3: Critique of Really Existing Socialism
Section 2: Towards Post-Marxist Radicalism
4: The Quest for Philosophical Radicalism
6: Rationality through the Prism of Everyday Life
7: The Limits of Modern Justice
8: A New Theory of Modernity
9: The Ethical Imperative
Section 3: Reflective Post-Modernism
10: The Spirit of Our Congregation
11: The Pendulum of Modernity
12: Paradoxical Cultural Modernity
13: Autonomy, Irony and Ethics
15: Conclusion:

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