Agnes Heller: 12 May, 1929 – 19 July, 201907-21-2019
I and all of us at the Arendt Center mourn the loss of Ágnes Heller (12 May 1929 – 19 July 2019). Heller was larger than life, fearless, and opinionated. Writing, she held, was an erotic pleasure. So too was philosophy. She valued freedom and independence and acted that way. Her exuberant spirit was a light in dark times. We will miss her.
Heller was a holocaust survivor, student of Georg Lukacs, citizen activist, and Arendt scholar. She was a professor of philosophy at the New School in New York City. After 1989 Heller returned to Hungary and became a leading critic of the illiberal government of Victor Orban. Throughout her 80s, she played a leading role in opposing the Orban government, not as a philosopher, but as a citizen. Asked whether philosophy could do anything to stop the rise of illiberalism, she responded that philosophy could not, but philosophers could:
Philosophy itself does nothing. It is the philosophers that can do something. Philosophers can do two things. They can act as citizens of a state among other citizens, not because we are philosophers but because we are citizens. Of course they can express their philosophical perspectives to the newspapers and on television. That is, philosophers can behave like businessmen. That is, we have a product. This product—we believe the truth is our product. We are not quite certain, but we believe it is true. This product, the truth, is what we are selling.
Agnes Heller never stopped selling her truth, a truth won from a lifetime in which she survived both Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. In a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, Heller wrote:
But for right-wing populism to thrive, Hungary’s historical penchant for servility required another condition, one that is now a global phenomenon: the transformation of class to a mass society. In a class society, by and large, a despot cannot permanently snuff out various groups’ interests without some kind of violent suppression or confrontation. But in a mass society, where traditional class interests have dissipated, a tyrant-in-the-making such as Mr. Orban does not need to seize power — his rule can be cemented by the nominally democratic institution of the popular vote.
Modern-day dictators and autocrats impose their anti-liberal and antidemocratic rule by securing a majority of votes in general elections. They legitimize their illegitimate power through the ballot box. Think of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Electoral gerrymandering, curtailing press freedoms and fearmongering create a toxic mix to consolidate rule over the people.
The great danger Heller perceived in the politics of our time was what she called substantive nationalism. The appeal to nationalism as a communal bond is one thing, but Heller was clear that nationalism needed to be limited by a similarly strong commitment to liberal ideals and liberal institutions. The great danger today is substantive nationalism that elevates nationalism above liberalism and even abandons and disdains the liberal ideal of individual freedom. She explains:
Individual people are bad or good. Evil or good. A nation can be neither evil nor good. But there can be governments like the one in Hungary that facilitate the worst instincts of its population. Orban is a person and our government consists of people who toy with the worst instincts of the Hungarian people. Who amplify them vis a vis the good instincts. And what happens?The nationalism of the 20th century as perhaps the 21st century is, I like to say, well: The most potent poison is substantive nationalism. And that is Orban’s policy.
Heller was clear that Orban was a tyrant and that the problem today around the world was rising tyranny. She was also clear that what is going on today in Hungary is not to be compared with what happened in Hungary in the 1950s under Soviet and communist rule. She explained this in an interview with Deutsche Welle:
Those times cannot be compared. Hungary has been sharply criticized. And rightly so. But you can’t compare Orban with Brezhnev. You compare him with democratic leaders like Angela Merkel. And if you compare him with Angela Merkel, you immediately see that within the European Union, Orban’s so-called illiberal democracy symbolizes the worst of all possible options.
In an “Open Letter to Hannah Arendt,” published in her book Agnes Heller and Hannah Arendt: A Dialogue (edited by Ángel Prior and Ángel Rivero), Heller engages with Arendt’s thesis that thinking might be able to condition humans against the doing of evil. Near the end of the letter, Heller addresses Arendt directly in words that many of us today would like to speak to Heller herself:
Dear Hannah Arendt, I am certain, if one can be certain at all in any case, that you like philosophy as an agonistic genre and are delighted in polemics while bored stiff by academic praises and the constant reciting of your books’ contents. If I know you, and perhaps I do, what you have always wanted most was to inspire others, to provoke polemics, contradictions, and thereby make a difference in your world. You were constantly grateful to have received the wonderful opportunity to spend a few decades on earth and you used your time well…. You were a thinker...Your personality continues to live in your thoughts, in our daydreams. Your thoughts continue to provoke and make an impact. We still want to be inspired by you, to be provoked by you, to be angry at you, to contradict you. Our age is not a desert, after all. Do you see it?