In Memoriam: Agnes Heller

Agnes Heller, the Hungarian-born political philosopher, died recently, at the age of 90. The obituaries in outlets like the New York Times, Le Monde, and Deutsche Welle have been respectful, and even ...

Agnes Heller, the Hungarian-born political philosopher, died recently, at the age of 90. The obituaries in outlets like the New York Times, Le Monde, and Deutsche Welle have been respectful, and even topical—highlighting her opposition not just to the communist regime in Hungary, but also her recent pointed condemnation of the present-day dictatorship of Orbán. Why not? When somebody who was already teaching at the University of Budapest before the Soviet Union’s violent repression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution declares that “liberal democracy has never existed in Hungary,” people tend to listen.

But celebrating Heller properly means acknowledging an important contradiction. On the one hand, she began her intellectual life as a founding member of the Budapest School: an influential group of scholars striving to articulate and test out a new conception of liberated Marxism, true to socialist principles but resolutely anti-authoritarian and defiant of state-sponsored verities. (This school included eminences like György Markus, Mihaly Vajda, and Ferenc Fehér, all working under the aegis—and, sometimes, the shadow—of the brilliant, but controversial, theorist György Lukács.) On the other hand, in her later years teaching and writing in Australia and America—she taught from 1986 onward as the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at New York’s New School—she became brilliant at what Arendt herself labeled “thinking without bannisters”: that is, intellectual frank-speaking that rejects the mutual aid society implied by membership in a particular school of thought.

A school member who became a fierce iconoclast: the duality defined Heller. She was not bound to any orthodoxy during her years in America—but her time in and around the Lukáscian Budapest School means she was well, perhaps even uniquely, qualified to notice both the productive and crippling aspects of belonging to a “committed” set of intellectuals in a crisis moment.

My strongest impression of how her banister-less thinking works stems from a 2002 piece of hers, “The Frankfurt School,” which appears in Rethinking the Frankfurt School (SUNY Press), edited by Jeffrey T. Nealon and my Brandeis colleague Caren Irr. Clocking in at a mere 16 pages, the article is a wide-ranging appreciation of what only later came to be labeled the Frankfurt School—an intellectual movement that first coalesced in the 1930s around Max Horkheimer. She is deeply appreciative of the Frankfurt School’s impact on still-influential writers such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Yet she is also clear-eyed on the fragility of such reclusive cadres in the modern world. She details not only the ways in which a modern school differs positively from its ancient antecedent (less loyalty to the master, more dialectics), but also the ways in which a devotion to “critique” for its own sake made the Nietzschean aspects of the Frankfurt School into a corrosive kind of anti-teaching at times.

Nonetheless, Heller’s account of how Adorno thought about the Frankfurt School in the early 1930s is immensely moving:

What kind of common cause should it be that calls for solidarity and makes friendship possible? It cannot be merely theoretical, neither can it be only practical. It must be based on a theory rooted in the practical and returning to it. If two men share a theory of their praxis or a theory of practical intent, furthermore, if sharing such a theory and practice calls for solidarity, then, and only then, can modern friendships among highly creative men overcome personal schisms, tensions, and conflicts; only then can friendship also endure censure, insensitivity, and occasionally also spite, yet still prevail. Friendship prevails in modern times if it is more than friendship, or at least also something else.

At the time I first read the essay, I was also reading two other books about what makes a “school” work: one was Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (about the Manchester scientific circle that included Humphry Davy, Erasmus Darwin, and Joseph Priestley), and the other was a group biography of Saturday Night Live during the Belushi, Radner, and Aykroyd days. Priestley/Adorno/Belushi is a peculiar trinity. But, thanks to Heller, I was able to put the pieces together. True, intellectual progress (especially in the humanities, where I was firmly rooted by age 30) requires isolated meditation and a fair amount of insistent autonomy. But it frequently aspires toward the sort of solidarity and collaboration that both scientists and comedians manage far better than humanists do.

Heller’s article on the Frankfurt School begins by noting that Horkheimer emphasized not “truth” per se, but the pursuit of truth according to his circle’s methodology: loyalty to the procedure, not the result, being the true requirement. And she is immensely subtle in explaining why Adorno and Horkheimer might feel justified in their famous so-called censorship of Walter Benjamin’s writing in the early 1930s. Within a grouping like the Freudian School or the Frankfurt Marxist scholars who went on to form the New School in NY, what looks like censorship to outsiders may to insiders seem a logical extension of serious conversation over ideas that matter: “As long as men believe in their cause they will speak and act in the first person plural and not in the first person singular … It will matter for them and matter very much whether the essay or the study published in their journal furthers the common cause or hinders it.”

Neither simply condemnatory nor celebratory, Heller lays out the cost and benefits of membership so memorably because she herself knew schools from the inside and the outside.

It is not hard to see that in writing about the Frankfurt School—its origins in a moment of shared belief, its gradual centrifugal dissolution—Heller was also writing about the Budapest School, where Lukács filled the role of Horkheimer. What’s more, she was reflecting on her own relationship to that school and her pain in leaving that collaborative culture of her youth behind. I found it poignant when she summed up the bond at the heart of the Frankfurt School:

The friendship between Horkheimer and Adorno, and also the friendship among other members of the school, could not have survived, perhaps not even developed, on the basis of personal sympathy or taste alone. What was needed in addition was the cement of solidarity. But what is the cement of solidarity, what motivates solidarity? Adorno’s answer is, To share theory as the element of their praxis.

This draws a bright line in the sand and dares the solitary intellectual to step over it. I vividly recall wincing when I came across Heller’s account of the difference between those who do and do not work within a school of this kind:

If one is committed to a cause and a school, one develops the tendency to talk categorically, to indulge in hasty generalizations and extrapolations. This is not a personal character trait, neither is it a forte or a weakness. If one has faith in a cause—and as long as one has—one will utter such and similar categorical statements. A person who just asks questions without even experimenting with answering them, an inconsistent skeptic who understands everything or almost everything or nothing, a person who is curious but withholds judgment at all costs, will not be affiliated with a school. In contrast, even the most sophisticated creative intellect such as Adorno will become highly judgmental and in this respect narrow-minded through and because of his commitment to his school. But this narrow-mindedness is not at all self-serving. It is narrow-mindedness emerging from a purpose and serving a purpose.

Neither simply condemnatory nor celebratory, Heller lays out the cost and benefits of membership so memorably because she herself knew schools from the inside and the outside.


In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

By John Plotz

Heller ends her essay by freely admitting the ambivalence that pervades her account of the Frankfurt School:

Schools are no more. If someone tried to establish one, she would look rather ridiculous. Still, I on my part—and perhaps not just I—look back not in anger but in a paradoxical nostalgia to a world where something that we do not now wish for ourselves was still possible.

Do I envy Heller’s paradoxical nostalgia? No, and I do not entirely share it, despite my own romantic hankering for some intellectual golden age now irretrievably lost. My heroes—Hannah Arendt, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few—spent their working lives on the outside, practicing a kind of solitary solidarity. They best kept faith with humanity as a whole by keeping it alone.

I met Heller only once: appropriately enough, it was at a conference about Hannah Arendt, where she reminisced, chuckling warmly, about chaotic trips to Brandeis in days of yore. If I had it all to do over, though, I’d have spent more time at the New School, listening to her think aloud. Heller spoke for a “first person plural” worth joining. And she spoke against that plural, too. I’d have liked to hear her do more of both. icon

Featured image: Agnes Heller (2018). Source: