In the spring of 2004, while I held a position at the University of Havana in the department of the History of Political Thought, I suggested to several co-workers that we hold a discussion and pay homage to the legacy of the political philosopher and legal expert Norberto Bobbio, who died in January of that year.
Along with Rosa Luxemburg, Cornelius Castoriadis, Hannah Arendt and Agnes Heller, Bobbio belonged to a critical and pluralistic legacy of leftists (socialists or social liberals) who were the enemies of all dominations and who nurtured our self-taught search for renovating roads to Marxism and socialism.
That initiative had an ambiguous welcome. While some colleagues alleged a manual-like character of the writings of that Italian thinker, others who barely knew of his writings offered a rather formalistic reception to my proposal.
I remember that it was my friend Dmitri Prieto who, despite coming from a different intellectual and activist tradition, showed enlightenment and public-spiritedness when he enthusiastically supported the initiative and expressed respect for the work and life of Bobbio.
I bring up this anecdote since it exemplifies the perverse overlapping of ignorance and sectarianism that crisscrosses certain areas of the intellectual field. This is the same field that favors isolation and disunited union in the face of political pursuits, and it is the same one that condemns the ostracism of critical voices that are not located at the extreme of the political spectrum, far from the hegemonies of the occasion. This is a situation that is well worth the trouble to remember in the light of recent events that I will discuss presently.
It turns out that the right-wing government of Viktor Orban, with the concurrence of the private conservative press and the public media in Hungary, have unleashed a campaign to satanize five leftwing intellectuals. They are accusing them of being a “small band of professionals” who are planting “tribal hatred” in Hungary, seeking to “sink the democratic right” and to “tarnish” the country’s image.
Among those identified stands out (along with the thinker Mihaly Vajda and three other colleagues) the academic Agnes Heller, the remarkable pupil of Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs. A representative of the Budapest School (equivalent to the Frankfurt School within east European neo-Marxism), Heller is known2| for offering sharp reflections on the sociology of daily lifei and the radicalization of democracy in a socialist pitch.ii She is also an emeritus professor of the New School in New York and of the University of Budapest.
Agnes Heller, a radical thinker
Heller was fired from her department and forced to emigrate in the 1970s by the state socialist regime of “popular Hungary.” Today the new conservative officialdom that controls two thirds of the parliament and is advancing laws to control and censor the media is repeating the Stalinist line. It has accused the intellectuals of “committing irregularities” in the use of funds granted by the European Union for research projects.
Heller has denounced the attack (an interview with her is available here in English) and she particularly questioned her hounding by the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, the battle horse of the right-wing maneuver.
Outside of Hungary the reactions are not what one would have hoped. Within the council of the European Union (so eager to denounce violations in other countries outside the Western orbit) there has been division and tepidness in facing this witch hunt.
Philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the continuer of the legacy of the Frankfurt School, has denounced the campaign in the German press, calling for support from several colleagues. Meanwhile, the crisis threatens to continue.
Someone could ask what importance or interest this case has for the Cuban public and intellectuals. The answer is clear and evident, at least for some.
When, after difficult trials and disappointments, we have learned that democracy and socialism can be nothing more than Siamese twins, that anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism seem to be the genetic illnesses of politicians of all ideological stripes, and that totalitarianism has multiple faces, it is not worthwhile to remain silent.
Therefore, the pursuit of the intolerance of critical thought deserves a response, be it emanating from Budapest or Manama, Jerusalem or Beijing, Havana or Miami.
i See “Sociología de la vida cotidiana”, Ediciones Peninsula, Barcelona, 1994.
ii See “Does Socialism Have a Future?” Dissent magazine, New York, summer 1989.