Agnes Heller has just died. She was an outstanding European intellectual and prolific humanist philosopher who became a vigorous opponent of the totalitarian Viktor Orban. Aged 90 she left us, fully active, after swimming in Lake Balaton in her native Hungary. The New York Times have run a good, brief obituary.
Her vital spirit shines out in this very short YouTube interview. In it, among other things, Heller answers a question about how to live the good life, explains how the marketisation of education undermines the necessity of a democratic culture, and describes the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism as present “since the beginning of modernity”. It is quite wrong, she states, to see authoritarianism as harking back to the past. Its threat is built into the times we live in.
I met Agnes Heller in 1976, on my first trip to Budapest. Last year I discovered to my delight that we were both on the great demonstration in the city protesting the re-election of Orban. I contacted her to try and arrange a meeting. She emailed back:
Dear Anthony, what a pity!
Tomorrow morning I have an appointment with my eye doctor that cannot be postponed.
I have not seen you for ages, but still remember old times…
I also participated yesterday at the demonstration; a kind of balsam on our wounds
We should not lose contact again. Now, that I received your phone number, I can call you next time in-London.
my best wishes to both of you.
Now, I want to say goodbye to Agnes by returning to a question I was too self-conscious to ask her forty years ago.
First, perhaps, I should explain about “both of you”, a reference to my partner now herself an emeritus professor. In the 1970s, on our travels in central Europe, we visited John Berger and Anya Bostock, who wrote to a friend, “I've given your number and address to… Anthony Barnett and Judith Herrin ... they look like children but are clever and interesting.”
This, then, is how we must have seemed when we went to Budapest and pressed the doorbell to the apartment of Agnes Heller and her husband Ferenc Feher in 1976.
The enervating struggle against communist totalitarianism had become completely intolerable. Agnes and Ferenc were in the long negotiations that prepared the way for them to leave for Australia.
We had arrived from Ceausescu’s Romania. There, we felt naked fear on the streets and while talking with dissidents. In Budapest, by contrast, the atmosphere was one of relaxed contempt. Everyone could sense that the regime was losing its will to live, thanks to the illegitimacy of Moscow’s suzerainty, but none saw any prospect of it dying. As we talked Ferenc pointed to the ceiling and signalled that was bugged. We went to walk in the nearby park to continue our conversation. It was an intrusion and an inconvenience. Unlike Romania there was no sense of terror.
I recalled that taken-for-granted-moment of being monitored when I read in a recent euobserver how Nora Koves was interviewed in Budapest last year after her name appeared on a list of 200 so-called ‘Soros mercenaries’. Koves too was in her Budapest apartment - and she simply removed her phone from the room, confident that it had been turned into a listening device.
Back in 1976, after we returned to their apartment, Agnes talked about the recently published letters of Max Weber – a towering figure in the creation of German sociology, in particular a letter Weber had written to György Lukács.
Lukács was a brilliant, Hungarian-born scholar and product of the extraordinary, German-speaking, Austro-Hungarian elite, that forged so much of modernity before the First World War. Among them he was rare in embracing the Russian revolution. In 1918 he became a Communist and a year later was the commissar for education in Hungary’s brief and bloody soviet republic. A loyal Communist, he survived Stalin’s holocaust of revolutionaries in Russia and returned to teach in Communist Hungary after 1945. In 1949 he inspired Agnes when she went to one of his lectures.
She had joined the Communist Party as a student, only to be expelled and went through the process a second time in 1958 when she refused to testify against Lukács who was accused of supporting the 1956 revolution. After that she and Feher became part of what was known as ‘The Budapest School’ of independent-minded thinkers, for whom Lukács was a special influence.
She and Feher became part of what was known as ‘The Budapest School’ of independent-minded thinkers, for whom Lukács was a special influence.
Agnes told us that the collection included a letter Weber wrote to Lukács in 1919 on learning that he had joined the Bolsheviks in Hungary. Weber warned him that Lenin’s revolution “would set back socialism by a hundred years”.
The quote may not be exact, I’ve not seen the original. But this is what I heard. I vividly recall the rueful way that Agnes Heller spoke about it. I could see she was wondering, what if the warning had been heeded by Lukács, how different her life would have been! And how right Weber was…
While she looked back to 1919, I reacted differently but privately. I love unequivocal political predictions, especially when made by others. I wondered if Weber’s warning was also a forecast? That socialism had lost its way was clear. But what if the Russian revolution had knocked it back by a hundred years. In which case, in what way would it reappear after a century-long setback?
Perhaps if I been less childlike I might have raised the question, we would all have laughed, and it would have vanished into the endless stream of chat. Instead, not daring to utter it, it became unforgettable in the way that the suppressed does not leave you.
I posed a question to myself without any expectation that I would live to be there, or rather here, in 2019! I was not preparing for four decades of reaction, frustration and failure. But through those decades I always carried Weber’s long-term suggestion in the knapsack of my short-term troublemaking. What for him was merely a turn of phrase became to me a kind of wager. Give it a century and then the revolution will recover its creative independence.
What for him was merely a turn of phrase became to me a kind of wager. Give it a century and then the revolution will recover its creative independence.
And, indeed, it did. I witnessed the beginning of the revival, the sudden, astonishing rebirth of socialism, in Madrid in May 2011. Although I suspect the democratic opposition to capitalism that it initiated may not be called ‘socialism’, it is certainly the inheritor of the republican, democratic tradition Heller represents.
The indignados had occupied Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid on the 15 May 2011 and inspired millions across Spain to similar actions in 81 cities. The scale, the peacefulness, the creative energy and the sheer collective learning that took place, made me feel it could not but be a turning point. The occupations lasted only four weeks, and were brought to an end by their own decision – a measure of the movement’s instinctive maturity as it set out to build even wider support. Later Jordi Vaquer observed,
“From a protest movement notable for its lack of visible leaders, a cohesive programme or a shared strategy in 2011, they went on to generate innovative participatory democratic processes and to fight the party system… winning the top positions in large cities, four years later.”
The indignados had obvious weaknesses such as the lack of a credible economic model and the absence of support across Europe, especially in France and Germany. These were a consequence of freshness, of a new-born naturally unable to walk. More significant was a naivety about the tap-roots of nationalism. You can see me struggling with this in an encounter with a spirited member of the 15 May communications team in Puerta del Sol at the time. Today, national flags and even Falangist salutes polarise Spain. I’ll come to this. The important point is that a new kind of utterly non-Leninist, networked movement had emerged to challenge the domination of the corporate market-place as well as its centralised social democratic expression, in a spirit of liberty, pluralism and self-government.
It was significant that it did so in Spain where the left suffered a ferocious and complete defeat, in part thanks to Stalinism, and there are radical traditions on the left that are not communist.
Anyone familiar with Paris in 1968 could see the parallel. Notably, Manuel Castells, the theorist of the networked society, who in May 2011 told his fresh young fellow-indignados in Barcelona: “what is transformative is the process more than the product… It is a new politics for exiting the crisis towards a new way of life built collectively. A slow process because, as a poster reads in Barcelona, ‘we’re going slowly because we’re going far’.”
It will take a different essay to say why the movement of the indignados born in the squares won’t suffer the same fate as its sixties’ predecessor. Initiated in Tunisia, the Occupy movement took off in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, which directly inspired the occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. It branched into the Arab Spring as well as insurgencies in Europe. The two combined in Turkey’s Gezi’s Park. Most important of all, it linked to the rebirth of democratic radicalism in America and China.
In the USA, Occupy Wall Street was directly stimulated by Spain’s May 15 but added a crucial, myth-busting claim: “We are the 99 percent” which exposed the oligarchy of America. This fed into the unprecedented support for the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders’ effort to secure the Democratic nomination and today’s burgeoning opposition to Trump and his racism.
In China the mobilisation of the young in Hong Kong, which started with the umbrella movement, has today become a defining fight with Beijing’s Party dictatorship. The current, inspiring, leaderless insurgency of ‘We are water’, will transform the opposition to dictatorship everywhere, whatever the immediate outcome.
Socialism has returned in a new form of networked movements, that challenge the domination of the corporate market-place as well as its centralised social democratic expression, in a spirit of liberty, pluralism and self-government.
As is often the case, the ruling order is far more aware of its vulnerability than its inexperienced opponents. I’m convinced that the permissiveness of the dominant financial system to our current barbarism stems from alarm at the way popular opposition to its blatant injustice has escaped the confines of traditional elite politics. A pre-emptive battle for the allegiance of ‘the people’ has been unleashed. Trump’s outrages, Brexit’s attack on Europe, Putin’s deadly illegalities, Netanyahu’s crimes against the Palestinians, Xi’s mass incarcerations, fundamentalist terrorism everywhere… the list is horribly familiar. In their different ways all bombard justice, openness and a popular claim to fundamental rights, with xenophobia and exclusive nationalism.
Nonetheless, these are early days. 1968 was a left-wing moment that initiated a long right-wing epoch, signalled by the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. Capitalism renewed itself with its digital transformation while the left was unable to spring the trap of Maoism and Brezhnevism. 2016 was a right-wing moment that has initiated the left-wing revival predicted by ‘Weber’s wager’.
But is the left, gnarled by a century of frustration, capable of the necessary persistence, tenderness, solidarities and patience to succeed? At this point, in dire times, the test is whether a democratic alliance can be woven amongst all those who oppose the polarisation and shock-doctrines of totalitarianism, from Johnson to Orban. As Agnes Heller argued, in an attempt to persuade everyone to unite against the re-election of Orban, it is “suicidal” for the opposition to him, across the spectrum, not to join forces. “There is no longer a conflict between left and right”, she insisted, “but between those who have broken the rule of law and those who want to restore it.”
With thanks to Miklos Haraszti and Tom Overton.