[Marxism] Agnes Heller, 90, Hungarian Philosopher and Outspoken Dissident, Is Dead

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 31 18:22:10 MDT 2019

NY Times, July 31, 2019
Agnes Heller, 90, Hungarian Philosopher and Outspoken Dissident, Is Dead
By Neil Genzlinger

Agnes Heller, a prominent Hungarian philosopher and dissident who 
repeatedly found herself unwelcome in her own country, died on July 19 
while vacationing on Lake Balaton in western Hungary. She was 90.

Her son, Gyorgy Feher, said Ms. Heller had gone for a swim, a favorite 
activity, when her body was found floating in the lake. She had been 
staying at the summer resort of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the 
town of Balatonalmadi.

The cause of death was not immediately clear. The police, Mr. Feher 
said, saw no sign of a heart attack or aneurysm. “So what can one say?” 
he said by email. The police ruled out the possibility of a crime, 
according to the Hungarian news site Hungary Today.

Ms. Heller, a prolific, wide-ranging writer in multiple languages, 
explored Marxism, ethics and modernity as well as everyday life. Her 
eventful life included losing her father in the Holocaust, falling into 
official disfavor after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and, most 
recently, speaking out against Viktor Orban, Hungary's right-wing prime 

“A story is always a story of choices,” she wrote in one of her last 
essays, published in the journal Social Research last spring. “It was 
not written in the stars that Hungary would fare worst among all 
post-Soviet states or that it would be the most radical in its 
elimination of freedom of the press or balance of power in government 
and wind up with a system I call tyranny.”

“Tyrannies always collapse,” she continued, “but whether Hungarians will 
escape with their sanity and sufficient clarity for a new start remains 
to be seen.”

Ms. Heller’s strong criticism of the current Hungarian government left 
some friends and colleagues a tad skeptical about the circumstances of 
her death.

“She was a strong and avid swimmer,” Judith Friedlander, a former dean 
of the New School for Social Research in New York, where Professor 
Heller taught for more than 20 years, wrote in a tribute to her. “Yet 
somehow on Friday, she went into the water and did not come out.”

She noted that Ms. Heller had gone to the science academy’s resort every 

“The Orban government had recently passed a new law that was going to 
dismantle the academy, and Agnes was still trying to fight that 
decision,” she wrote. “Full of energy and terribly concerned about the 
plight of Hungary and other countries in Europe, she was not about to 
give up.”

Interview Agnes Heller, 4 may 2017CreditCreditVideo by Studium Generale
Agnes Heller was born on May 12, 1929, to a middle-class Jewish family 
in Budapest. Her father, Pal Heller, was a lawyer and writer who had 
been helping people escape Hungary and the Nazi sphere when he was sent 
to Auschwitz in 1944; he died there. She remained in Budapest with her 
mother, Angela Ligeti, expecting to be executed — an experience, she 
said, that stayed with her permanently.

“A trauma cannot be forgotten,” Ms. Heller said in a talk in 2014, when 
she was awarded the Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan, 
given in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued 
tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. “You will not 
forget it even if you want to forget it. The more you want to forget it, 
the less you can forget it.”

Other family members also died in the concentration camps, and one theme 
of her later explorations in philosophy was set.

“I promised myself to solve the dirty secret of the twentieth century,” 
she wrote in “A Short History of My Philosophy” (2010), “the secret of 
the unheard of mass murders, of several million corpses ‘produced’ by 
genocides, by the Holocaust, and all of them in times of modern humanism 
and enlightenment!”

Much of her writing looked at issues of ethics and morality and pondered 
the relationships between the self and the human institutions into which 
a person is born. Her earliest influence was the philosopher Gyorgy 
Lukacs, whom she encountered somewhat by accident when enrolled at the 
University of Budapest after the war. She was studying to be a 
scientist, but a boyfriend asked her to accompany him to a philosophy 

“I sat there listening to Lukacs and I understood hardly a single 
sentence,” she told the journal Radical Philosophy in 1999. “But I did 
understand one thing: that this was the most important thing I had ever 
heard in my life, and so I must understand it.”

She fell into Lukacs’s intellectual circle and later, in the 1960s, 
became a principal member of what was known as the Budapest School, 
philosophers whose common link was Lukacs. They initially focused on 
applications of Marxism, though most later distanced themselves from it.

Ms. Heller also became politically active, joining the Communist Party 
in 1947. It was the beginning of a turbulent relationship with the 
authorities. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was snuffed out by the 
Soviet Union, Lukacs was temporarily deported and fell into official 
disfavor, as did his followers. Ms. Heller lost her position as a 
philosophy professor at the University of Budapest. She felt ostracized. 
People she had considered friends turned away from her on the street to 
avoid having to greet her.

“Yet this is not what I find odd today; it was rather normal in the 
given circumstances,” she wrote years later. “What is rather odd is that 
all this did not for a minute shatter the confidence I had in myself.”

She wrote several influential books in the 1960s, including “Renaissance 
Man” and “Everyday Life.” Among her interests was examining the 
distinction between liberation, which she saw as involving social and 
political systems, and emancipation, which she defined as a more 
personal transformation.

“We do not need a political revolution,” she told Radical Philosophy, 
explaining her thinking in the 1960s. “What we need is a revolution of 
life, of ‘everyday life.’ Life itself needs to be transcended, that was 
the important thing. We don’t need to ‘seize power’ or have a 
proletarian revolution. We have to change our lives.”

Her relationship to official powers in Hungary continued to be strained, 
and in 1977 she emigrated to Australia to teach at La Trobe University 
in Melbourne. She joined the New School in 1986.

“Heller was eventually faced with the task of reconstructing her life 
and career in another country and language,” John Grumley wrote of this 
period in the biography “Agnes Heller: A Moralist in the Vortex of 
History” (2005). “This is an obstacle that has destroyed many 
intellectuals. Yet Heller’s emigration to Australia in 1977 was followed 
by an enormous burst of theoretical productivity. Writing in another 
language and re-establishing her credentials in novel surroundings was 
just the challenge that she needed.”

She published at least 20 books after leaving Hungary, including “A 
Theory of History” (1982) and “Can Modernity Survive?” (1990). She 
retired from the New School in 2009. At her death, her son said, she had 
been living primarily in Budapest.

Ms. Heller’s first marriage, to Istvan Hermann in 1949, ended in divorce 
in 1962. Her second husband, Ferenc Feher, another member of the 
Budapest School, died in 1994. In addition to her son, she is survived 
by a daughter from her first marriage, Zsuzsa Hermann.

In recent years Ms. Heller lectured and taught all over the world and 
spoke out often about the political situation in Hungary.

In a memorial that Professor Grumley said he would include in a 
forthcoming book of her lectures that he is editing, he wrote that “the 
European public sphere will miss her” because of her stand “against 
xenophobic populism.”

“Hungary will miss her even more,” he added, “a fearless critic of 
Viktor Orban’s nationalist right-wing authoritarian and anti-Semitic 
government at a time it really needs a robust opposition.”

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