Enrique Dussel's critique of Ágnes Heller's Eurocentrism



Considerations on the work of the Hungarian philosopher from the critical reading made by Dussel

“Agnes Heller’s Philosophical Project”[I] it is a lost dialogue, because this essay by Enrique Dussel received no response from Heller, other than a joke of haughty indifference: “I remember that I also met Enrique Dussel in Cartagena. He claims that I am very Eurocentric. Indeed, Dussel says this to all philosophers who are not born in a land of the South. I never understood what he meant, because the training he had, in my opinion, also comes from Europe; that he mediated it with its context is another matter, but I don't see why he should make that distinction. I have a lot of sympathy and esteem for Dussel's thinking, but we certainly have different positions with regard to Marx and Marxism”.[ii]

Heller does not understand that the meaning of the criticism of Eurocentrism is aimed precisely at the divergence of interpretation in relation to Marx and Marxism. To say the essentials, Dussel takes up precisely Marx's ethics, which Heller glimpsed only in his Hungarian phase, that is, an ethics of values, but for Dussel in Marx, more than an ethics of values, there is an ethics that arises from critique of political economy, therefore, of Marx's economic reflection which, according to the Latin American philosopher, is absent in the reflection of the Hungarian philosopher.[iii]

In particular, Dussel notes that Heller paid little attention to the Marxist critique of political economy, in which, precisely, Marx's ethics are contained. Heller did not understand very well what the exploitation of living labor meant for Marx, that is, the material life of the worker, and states: “For Marx, 'living work', the living and corporeal subject […] of work, the worker, it cannot have exchange value, as it is the 'creating source of value'. The living subject, his 'human life' is the criterion for the validity of value, its foundation, and it is from the human life of the worker that one judges […] capital as the cause of his death, poverty, derealization, negation”.[iv] Essentially, Heller would have confused the good, that is, a good life for the worker, with value, which is why he argued that Marx would have developed an ethics of values, while Dussel insists that in Marx there is an ethics of material life.

In addition, for Dussel, in Marx there is also an ethical position that emerged in him along with his critique of political economy and which can be summarized in the expression “placing himself on the side of the victims of the system”, that is, Marx took the side of the workers Englishmen, who were the victims of the incipient industrial capitalist system of XNUMXth century England. Heller never sided with any victim. She herself was a victim of the system of realized socialism, but later chose her “place” in the Anglo-Saxon world. It's a very respectable choice, but also an open one. She did not choose to take sides to defend the rights of minorities such as Indigenous Australians or African-Americans in the United States. The position that Dussel assumes, or rather, the “place” in which he takes root to assume another cultural tradition that enriches the European one, the “place” he chooses, that is, to be beside the victims of the system of exploitation and exclusion represented by current globalization, makes us understand that Eurocentrism is not a question of cultural formation, but of emancipatory criticism and recognition of universal values.

Dussel has a very wide and very deep knowledge of Marx's works, so his judgment of the German philosopher can be considered particularly convincing. Dussel does not recognize the existence of an ethics of values ​​in Marx, as, on the contrary, argues Heller. In turn, Dussel's ethics is not based on values, because no value can be superior to life, because without life no value is viable or sustainable: without life there can be no freedom, country, party, ideals, etc. Life is the condition for founding values, so Dussel's ethics is a material ethics, founded on categories of material life: production, reproduction and development of life.

Dussel recognizes that Heller used some of these material categories in his ethics, inherited from Lukács, but spent above all in an individualistic sense.[v], not communitarian, as, on the contrary, affirmed his teacher. In fact, in the course of his philosophical production, Heller, little by little, abandoned the Lukácsian position to approach Hartmann more and more decisively, which was precisely one of Lukács' critical objectives. Continuing on his own philosophical path, Heller ended up adopting conceptions that came from Schopenhauer, Schelling, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, which were the main critical objectives of Lukács, who accuses them of irrationalism, in his The destruction of reason, a work widely criticized as Stalinist by its dominant philosophical environment. However, Heller, who lived with the master for at least twenty-five years and precisely during the period in which he was writing that work, should have known that that work was essentially anti-Stalinist, that Lukács' criticisms had more points of validity.

In technical and general terms, Heller would develop a morality more than an ethics, with morality directed to the individual and ethics to the community of individuals. This individualistic character of Heller appears more clearly in her book on the Renaissance, in which Dussel contests her precisely for having neglected the historical stages that sustain this typically Eurocentric tradition, that is, Egypt, which strongly influenced Judeo-Christian culture and its own. Greek culture and then the Arab influence in the Christian Middle Ages and therefore in Renaissance culture: “The so-called 'Jerusalem-Athens-Florence' axis is Hellenocentric, and the 'Athens-Florence' axis is Eurocentric and metropolitan […] more complex and interesting. And, a little earlier, she had observed that in her works on the historical system "There is no author, but also no example of historical fact, from China, from India, from Southeast Asia, from the Muslim world."[vi] Dussel also criticizes Heller, because he did not use Judaism itself to his advantage, as did other philosophers of the XNUMXth century, such as Bloch, Benjamin, Rosenzweig or Buber. In this substantial refusal, Dussel sees a parallel with the other great philosopher of the XNUMXth century, Hannah Arendt, from whom Heller wanted to inherit the chair of the prestigious New School for Social Research, in New York.

Heller is the author of an excellent general ethics, which begins with a chapter entitled “The Human Condition”. It is known what the human condition is in the XNUMXst century, that is, a large part of humanity lives in a condition of exploitation and exclusion, it is not in a position to have universal values ​​such as those that can, on the contrary, refer to the privileged part of humanity. Other philosophers, all Eurocentric, tried to develop ethics based on universal values, and Dussel's criticism was directed towards them, as Heller points out above. Only one of them, Karl-Otto Apel, accepted the dialogue and argued a series of responses with Dussel, thus showing that Eurocentrism is not a permanent condition, but can also be an excellent position to confront the Other to arrive together at the definition of a universal ethics.

Dussel's criticism is, however, deeply corrosive and calls into question the entire development of Heller's philosophy, especially in the Anglo-Saxon phase, after his departure from communist Hungary, following book after book until the moment of elaboration of the “Philosophical Project of Ágnes Heller”, that is, from 2000. Until then Dussel is in solidarity with Heller, also showing some autobiographical parallels with the events lived by Heller during the period of communism; solidarity dictated by both being victims of the political systems in which they found themselves, living and carrying out intellectual activities.

Allow me a personal observation, having lived for two years in communist Hungary, but in the final period of that regime (1984-1986) and in Argentina for eight years, but in the democratic period (1993 and 1998-2004), although still strongly marked by the War dirty. The two regimes were by no means comparable: from the 2019s onwards there were no more politically motivated prisoners in Hungary, and indeed Heller, fortunately, never spent a day in prison; Dussel, on the other hand, suffered an attack on his home in Mendoza and literally escaped capture by the Argentine army, taking refuge in Mexico. Heller returned to Hungary, where he died in XNUMX, Dussel never returned to live in Argentina. In recent years, Heller has developed a critique of the Orbán system which stifles political and civil rights in Hungary.[vii] which, unfortunately, Dussel did not incorporate into his essay for obvious chronological reasons, but which met with his approval, as he told me personally.

Heller always made his own intellectual choice based on advantageous conditions: the Hungarian regime of realized socialism did not guarantee freedom of expression and personal mobility outside the country's borders, but guaranteed a cultural education at the best levels of European culture. In addition, Heller became a student of Lukács, who was undoubtedly one of the best philosophers of the XNUMXth century. In fact, her first works, such as Sociology of everyday life, were written under the influence of Lukács, resuming some themes from Ontology of the social being of the master, still unpublished at the time. Heller's research still remained in the Marxist field in Towards a Marxist theory of value, in which some themes are taken up from the notes on ethics that Lukács had prepared for one of his books on ethics, which he never wrote because of his death; but, in any case, it would be an ethics of values, an axiological ethics.

The work that gave Heller worldwide fame was Marx's Theory of Needs, which drew attention to material life at a historical moment in which the crisis of the capitalist system of production was beginning to emerge. Marx's Theory of Needs it can be considered Heller's last Marxist work. Heller, however, did not understand – Dussel scolds her – that the worker is subjected to a condition of radical division of his own being: his capacity for work is within the system, his needs, his material life, are outside the system. Heller later distanced himself from his master, but that is the fate that excellent students reserve for the best masters: once the student has learned to walk the path of thought, he chooses his own path. Heller also began to distance himself from Marxism and already in his radical philosophy claimed to side with a radical philosophy. Dussel does not contest this evolution of Heller, he contests, at most, the journey from Center to Center, he contests, moreover, that his philosophy is not so radical, it is a definition of rights, it is not a taking of sides for life, above all for life. of the victims, of the Other.

This shift in perspective can be seen in works already written in English, starting with theory of history, in which the new position of Heller clearly appears, who has now found the most suitable “place” for it. It is theory of history is thought for the Center of the world, that is, Europe and North America, in the book – observes Dussel – there is not the slightest hint of historical events that are peripheral, as if the story were concentrated only in the Center, which indicates that there is a lack of understanding the historical dialectic of the contrasting relationship between Center and Periphery. In summary, according to Dussel, it is a matter of re-proposing the paradigm of Hegel's philosophy of history, already archaic in the XNUMXth century, absolutely unfounded in the XNUMXth century; archaic because it is incapable of understanding that the economic, social, political and above all spiritual development of the Euro-North American Center was possible because the Periphery was exploited, hidden, denied.

Em theory of feelings, the themes of individuality return, albeit with important insights that reveal Heller's ability to dominate the thinking of philosophers of the past. By this point, however, Heller has moved decidedly away from the critical themes of the Hungarian period, so much so that he will also revise the successful theses of Marx's Theory of Needs, to get closer to the Kantian moral[viii].

Basically, what makes the difference between Heller and Dussel is their use of Marx's thought: Dussel extracts from Marx the categories to understand and judge the current world, Heller accepted the neoliberal paradigm to which he should have contrasted. Critical themes in Heller only return when, together with Ferenc Fehér or György Markus, he returns to the critical analysis of realized socialism, illustrating its mentality, economy, everyday life and elaborating that illuminating category of “dictatorship over needs” which, although not adapted to entirely to Kádár's Hungary, which Heller left behind, is perfectly suited to other existing socialist systems, but with the distinction that Heller does not make: the needs in the countries of realized socialism were oppressed but recognized - people did not starve, even that they lived miserably –, in the capitalist system of production one is free to die of hunger.

His master Lukács always remembered a saying by Anatole France: in the liberal bourgeois system it is not forbidden for a poor person to live under bridges! Dussel adds: It's one thing to live in New York, another in Calcutta[ix]. Now, the difference in class and material life is no longer just under the eyes, but has extended to all mankind. The poor starving African, or Indian, or super-exploited Latin American worker are our neighbors, because capitalist exploitation has become globalized, it has entered into the lives not only of men, but also of women, children, elderly people from the periphery, in addition to attacking nature in increasingly powerful way. It is necessary to have an ecological economy, to rethink all of modernity and, above all, postmodernity, which still wanted capitalism, albeit reformed.

Heller responds to this agenda at most with a sharp critique of the Western left, which Heller accuses of still chasing the Third World myth of the revolutionary hero. They are critics that within the left intellectual movement opened deep gaps, above all the Australian Social Democratic Party suffered the most disastrous consequences. These criticisms are chronologically contemporaneous with the birth of the myth of the “Third Way” in the western left, which is also tired of supporting a Third World policy. Of course, Heller was in favor of the peace movement in the final years of the Cold War, but even then the alignment is one-sided, as if the nuclear threat came only from the East.

Following the trend of overcoming differences in The postmodern political condition, Heller assumes Arendtian-style conceptions, that is, disregarding the substantial differences between Nazism and Stalinism, bringing them together in the more general category of totalitarianism. Overcoming modernity is not seen in the emancipation of the excluded and exploited, but in the rational and moderate realization of neoliberal precepts. The condition under which this uncritical decision in favor of a liberal democracy can take place is, according to Dussel, to leave aside the socioeconomic issue, wanting to believe that politics is the central issue of contemporary society. This position makes us think that for the last Heller the battle to be fought is still her permanence in communist Hungary.

Heller seems not to realize that, paradoxically, her condition as an intellectual, victim of the Hungarian regime of realized socialism, morally obliges her to continue fighting for the emancipation of those who find themselves in a condition of exclusion even more radical than that which she herself experienced until 1978. Refusing By understanding the great condition of exploitation of the majority of humanity and closing himself in the small circle of Eurocentric culture, Heller ends up overturning his old positions: from revolutionary thought he slowly passed to conservative thought.

Conservative is thinking that justice is a moral issue, that is, individual, as Heller argues in Beyond Justice. It was, basically, the position of the last Lukács, who opposed the Stalinist regime with the only instrument at his disposal: the pen. Lukács was the good man, who served as a model for Heller, beyond the criticisms she herself leveled at him; criticisms that centered on an essential point: Heller rejected the reformability of the system of realized socialism, as Lukács, on the contrary, had hoped. Basically, Heller was berating him for a “reconciliation with reality” that she herself carried out. “Reconciliation with reality” is always a conservative position. Heller ended up in the same position as her former master: she thinks that the neoliberal system is reformable, that it can be preserved with a few minor variations, a “make-up” operation.

Moving away from his critical positions of the Hungarian period to embracing the ideology of neoliberalism dominant today, Heller sees a kind of end of history: “I believe that liberal democracy is the best we can achieve. And I don't believe there will be another economic system after capitalism.”[X]. It is obviously a question of renouncing any position critical of neoliberalism and what exists. So, what would Heller say to one of those victims of the exploitative, globalizing and excluding dominant system? Liberal democracy and capitalism are the best and unbeatable, so it is necessary to adapt to what exists, accept it without even hoping for a better future. Precisely everything she didn't do in communist Hungary.

Heller could argue that he was reaching out to something existing, while the victim has no alternate world to appeal to. Dussel would answer that the victim has only his own life, the only life he can have and that he sees diminishing with each passing day and that he only has the hope of fighting to live a few more days. This would be the conclusion of the dialogue initiated by Enrique Dussel, but rejected by Ágnes Heller.

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (Boitempo).



[I] Cf. E. Dussel, “Agnes Heller's philosophical project. Dialogue from the Philosophy of Liberation”, in: Towards a critical political philosophy, Bilbao, Desclée de Brouwer, 2001, pp. 243-278.

[ii] A. Heller, I miei occhi hanno visa, with F. Comina and L. Bizzarri, Trento, Il margine, 2012, p. 107.

[iii] Cf. E. Dussel, “Agnes Heller's philosophical project”, cit., p. 26.

[iv] Ivy, p. 271,

[v] “Since his first historical works a certain individualism is philosophically affirmed” (Ivi, p. 246).

[vi] Ivie, pp. 267 and 266.

[vii] Cf. my essay “Dall'epidemia alla dittatura. The letter of the Orbán phenomenon according to Agnés Heller”, at philosophyinmovimento.it

[viii] Cf. E. Dussel, “Agnes Heller's philosophical project”, cit., p. 261.

[ix] See Ivi, Ibid.

[X] A. Heller, The value of the case. My life, tr. it. M. De Pacale, Rome, Castelvecchi, 2019, p. 137.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining