With the death of Ágnes Heller on 19 July an era in Hungarian politics has come to an end.
She was one of the last links to the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács and the so-called Budapest School of the 1960s, which consisted of a number of his former students, including Heller’s husband Ferenc Feher.
Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Heller survived the Holocaust. Her father – an inspirational figure who helped many Jews to survive – perished in the final months of the war. After 1945 she enrolled at university and joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1947 after hearing Lukács give a lecture. She quickly established herself as an independent voice within the party and was frowned on by the rigidly Stalinist leadership.
In 1955 she took up a teaching post at the University of Budapest. The Hungarian revolution of 1956, which she referred to as the “greatest event in my life”, confirmed the gap, in her eyes, between actual Marxism and what the “Marxists” of the Hungarian CP did when they came to power.
At a conference in Berlin she called for the founding of a new and qualitatively different form of socialism. For that heresy she was expelled from the party and thrown out of her job at the university. Lukács appointed her his assistant, but even that afforded no protection, and in 1958 she was packed off to teach in a middle school.
In 1964 Heller participated in the formation of the Budapest School under the guidance of Lukács. Some say this name was foisted on them by a journalist and Heller, Ferenc Feher, György Markus, András Hegedus, Mihaly Vajda and a few others were probably never more than a loose grouping of like-minded thinkers.
Their goal was a “Renaissance of Marxism. They studied the early works of Marx and the most important work of their mentor: György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, originally published in 1923.
Life was hard for a small group of Marxist intellectuals in Hungary after 1956. Isolated, persecuted and harassed by party officials, and with the workers’ movement suppressed after 1956, Heller and her colleagues began a slow drift away from Marxism, a process not helped by the death of Lukács in 1971.
They began to question the centrality of class within a Marxist critique of capitalist society and in this they showed the influence of some “New Left” thinking coming from the West. Likewise, they became increasingly critical of the Bolshevik revolution, often using the term “Jacobinism” to describe it.
Heller also participated in the Korčula conferences in Yugoslavia where, in the more relaxed political atmosphere of the mid and late 1960s, leftist philosophers from Eastern and Central Europe would gather to discuss a different vision of Marxism.
The suppression of the “Prague Spring” (the reforms associated with Alexander Dubček in neighbouring Czechoslovakia in 1968) prompted a strong protest from Heller and her colleagues. That resulted in more pressure on them.
Denounced as “anarchists of the new left”, they were again expelled from their posts. Their doubts about the validity of Marxism grew at the same time as their position in Hungary became more insecure. Around 1976 the Budapest School simply folded and the individual adherents went their separate ways.
Heller and Feher moved to Australia and taught in Melbourne and later in the USA. Markus also went to Australia (to Sydney). Heller returned to Hungary in 1989, and in her final years was a vocal opponent of Victor Orbán.
In my nine years in Hungary I heard her speak once, in the lakeside town of Keszthely. The venue was packed and it was obvious that she was well-known even in this small countryside town.
Of course she spoke in Hungarian. Since I had then been in the country less than a year, it was hard to follow her. At that time I knew little about her. I had expected to hear a Marxist speak but what she said would not have been out of place in a Lib-Dem conference. I tried to arrange a meeting with her in Budapest, but it fell through.
She published many books over the years – a body of work with which I can only claim a limited acquaintance. I can recommend some of her early works, written while she was still a Marxist, such as Everyday Life (1968) and Renaissance Man (published in 1976 but written earlier).