84-Year-Old Philosopher Rallies Opposition to Hungary's Hard-Line Government

© Pályi Zsófia, Anzenberger

Agnes Heller is back in Budapest, speaking out against Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz.
December 09, 2013

"During my years abroad, both in the U.S. and Australia, I always said that I liked living there, but that I want to be buried in my home, in Hungary," says the philosopher Agnes Heller, who at the age of 84 lives in Budapest, still writing—in three languages—and lecturing.

It is generous of Ms. Heller to preserve affection for a homeland that has been so unkind to her. She was born and raised in the city's Jewish ghetto in the volatile political climate of 1930s Central Europe. Ms. Heller and her mother narrowly escaped deportation to Auschwitz; her father perished there.

In the postwar years she studied philosophy under the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs, and later became part of the so-called Budapest School around him. This group of radical thinkers called upon Hegel and the humanist works of early Marx to reinvigorate contemporary Marxism.

In the aftermath of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, Ms. Heller, though a socialist and Communist Party member, was warned by police about "anti-state activity," and banned from working at a university.

In 1977 she emigrated to Australia as a political exile. During the 1980s, Ms. Heller rethought her political views, becoming highly critical of orthodox Marxism. She subsequently assumed the Hannah Arendt visiting professorship of philosophy and political science at the New School for Social Research, in New York, where she lived and taught political theory for 25 years.

But it's more than sentimentality that compels Ms. Heller to stay in Hungary, where she is professor emeritus at Budapest's esteemed Eotvos Lorand University. Her experience and knowledge are needed here, she says, particularly now.

And peers, like the political scientist Andras Bozoki, professor at the Central European University, are grateful to have her: "She's a model of a freethinker and free citizen. Agnes Heller's a globally known scholar who believes it is the role of intellectuals to engage civically, much like Hannah Arendt," the German theorist who made New York City her home after fleeing Nazi Germany.

In recent years, Ms. Heller has become a leading figure speaking out against the policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz. Mr. Orban has been criticized by the European Union and human-rights groups for limiting freedoms of expression, among other controversial political moves. In higher education, critics say, Mr. Orban has gradually stripped away universities' independence. His administration, for example, has required that the government itself appoint university rectors.

The atmosphere, many say, is one of fear and uncertainty. Pressure has been brought to bear on the country's liberal-minded intellectuals, those defiant enough to protest—among them Agnes Heller. In the international news media as well as the handful of independent outlets still in business in Hungary, Ms. Hel­ler decries Hungary's authoritarian drift and underscores the responsibility of its scholars, as well as its ordinary citizens, to resist.

The government says these charges are nonsense. "Agnes Hel­ler is doing what she always does: complaining loudly abroad whenever there's an anti-communist government in power in Budapest. Hungarian universities are world-renowned and enjoy full academic freedom," says Andras Doncsev, deputy minister at the Ministry of Human Resources, which is responsible for education.

'Blacken the Names'

Ms. Heller's words earned her the wrath of the Orban administration from early on. In 2011 she and a handful of other academics were accused by a government commission of embezzling research funds earmarked for translations. In early 2012 the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. During the brouhaha, prominent European intellectuals, including the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, came to Ms. Heller's defense.

"There was nothing to the charges at all," says Anna Gacs, an associate professor of media studies at Eotvos Lorand University and a founder of the University Lecturers' Network, a faculty group formed to protect the public universities from government interference. "It was the regime's first attempt to control the critical intelligentsia," she says.

"They knew there was nothing" in the charges, says Ms. Heller, "but this is their strategy."

She spoke with a reporter in her small apartment high above the Danube River, just blocks away from the former study and archive of her mentor, the famous Mr. Lukacs. "They make these kinds of accusations, spread them all over their loyal media outlets, and thus blacken the names of their opponents. By targeting liberals," she says, "they blacken the name of liberalism itself. 'Liberal' here is a dirtier word than 'Nazi' or 'communist.'"

This year Ms. Heller and several other Jewish faculty members were the targets of anti-Semitic acts. Her office door and others at Eotvos Lorand in downtown Budapest were plastered with bumper stickers that read: "Jews, the university is ours, not yours!" Ms. Heller has a picture of the sticker on her windowsill at home.

The incident made headlines, not least because Ms. Heller is a Holocaust survivor and the Orban government has been accused of anti-Semitic tendencies.

But there was no investigation into the incident. Most observers assume it was done by far-right student groups, which are prominent on Hungarian campuses. Surveys show that a third of Hungary's students support the ultra right.

Other faculty members agree that the public universities are in a deep crisis. Funding has been cut by 50 percent over the past four years, and the education ministry, not the universities themselves, now determine which faculty members stay on beyond the retirement age of 62. The climate makes some faculty members reluctant to speak out against government policies.

"Many younger colleagues censor themselves. They just keep quiet and do their research in the library. They're scared that they'll lose what they've got," explains Daniel Deak, a professor of tax law at Corvinus University of Budapest.

According to Ms. Gacs, the public universities are being starved of funds, pared down in size, and intimidated, while the Orban government has invested millions of dollars to build up research institutes and colleges to train civil servants. "The idea is to create a faithful body of technocrats to run the Fidesz state for years to come," says Ms. Gacs. "The bigger project is to replace the current elites with their own elites."

Andras Doncsev, the government official, says the charge is untrue. "They can't give you one example of this happening," he says.

Given the environment she returned to, does any of this make Agnes Heller regret returning to Hungary? Or might an end to the Orban administration be in sight with national elections scheduled for early next year? No on both accounts, she says. There have been flashes of protest by students, Ms. Heller notes, but they petered out quickly. There's still no unified opposition in the country.

Nevertheless, even four more years of Viktor Orban and Fidesz, says the octogenarian, will not force her to flee Hungary again. Agnes Heller is home to stay.

Correction (12/12/2013, 1:10 p.m.): This article originally reported incorrectly that Ms. Heller was imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution in Hungary. She was warned by police about "anti-state activity" but was never put in prison. The article has been updated to reflect the correction.