top of page

L’etica della libertà


Intervista ad Àgnes Heller

a cura di Bachisio Meloni

Prof. Àgnes Heller, with this interview we would like to dwell upon the principle of individual freedom and the concept of humanity, on which you have so admirably insisted. For we believe that your philosophical criticism of the totalitarianisms, as well as the study and the interpretation of Marxism, of its deepest ethics and its political and social consequences, started from this basic perspective, thus characterizing your whole speculative way.


About the “legacy of Marxian ethics”, you stated in your essay how it is not possible to speak about a “Marxist” ethics at all, but “only of the private ethics of persons who accept the Marxian theory and, independently of this act of acceptance, conduct their actions in keeping with values and norms which are in no way interconnected with their scientific creed”. We reckon this statement of yours encloses the spirit of your whole proposal, whose criticism is per se most anti- ideological.


There is no marxian ethics as there is no cartesian ethics either. Although ethics is one of the traditional branches of philosophy, one can speak about ethics of a philosopher only if he or she is not just interested in ethical issues, but also reflects on ethics and morals in a speculative manner. There is place for an ethics in every philosophy, also in that of Marx, but this place remained in his case empty, for his interest focused elsewhere.

Nowadays, this is no more an important question-the moral of modern men is self founded and in this sense singular. Good or decent is a person, who has chosen himself herself as one who rather suffers than commits injustice. This act of self choice is independent on world view with the exception of racism, which denies the truth of the above criterion in principle.


About your Marxism, or in fact your “non-marxism”, your proposition is comparable to a foundation of the value of freedom as a sovereign right within the ideal democratic community. A consitutive value completely inconsistent if separated from the equally primary obligation of the “social duties”. Full freedom is, so to speak, “absence of social duties”. Your ineludible call concerns one of the unavoidable elements for the Hebraic thought in the twentieth century: ethics as a responsibility towards others.


The value of freedom is, beside that of the value of life, one of the dominating values of modernity. A democratic state is self founded by its citizens who constitute a constitution. Social duties, which are also rights, concern the promotion and achievement of equal life chances for all this duty is social, insofar the contestation of justice goes on also, or even primarily, in civil society. But in a democratic State the contestation of justice in civic lice belongs to the powers which might grossly contribute to the change of the laws of the state. In non democratic societies where there are no citizens but subjects, social duties are not related to rights and they are also ambiguous, for dictatorships of different kind always superimpose their own concept of duty, first of all that of obedience, on their subjects.

Ethics, as you also say, is always related to the others. We carry responsibility first of all towards others, but also to ourselves. For example women’s responsibility towards themselves frequently contradicts social obligations. (See nora)


We think that a strictly ethical and philosophical, more than ideological, approach to the Marxist thought might finally let emerge what is truly actual in this thought itself (nowadays one may read Das Kapital more as a literary text than an economic-philosophical essay). We refer in particular to the Marxian reflection about the dominion of things and goods over the man, that is, the nihilistic reification of the innermost dignity as a person, and to the attempt to go back nevertheless to an order based on the principles of morality and social righteousness.


One can read every significant text in different ways. Especially today, in a era of hermeneutics. This is true also about Das Kapital.

Nowadays many of us read it as a book of philosophy, especially the chapter of fetishism. others refer to his excellent observations about the development of capitalist economy, for example centralization, accumulation, globalization and the capitalization of agriculture. However, no interpretation accepts his theory of surplus value, for it is based on the labor theory of value, developed by Ricardo, which turned out to be a bad theory. And there are hardly even marxists, who would accept today the idea of Marx, that nature gives us everything free and that the exploitation of nature can go on infinitely.


To reform the most genuine spirit of modern democracies naturally means to consider a new and more adequate juridical and institutional apparatus; nevertheless, any reformational thrust seems truly impossible without a precise reference to an ethical root of the human: this seems to be your deepest challenge message. 


In a genuine democracy no reform is possible without the ethical consensus of the majority of citizens. This consensus can change, and it does often change, under the influence of discourses conducted by citizens and (or) by scientific community (see abortion, euthanasia, genetic intervention in human cells).


In these first stages of Mr Obama’s administration a reformational principle seems to animate the new course of the American politics. Do you reckon one could think of a politics that is able to develop, as you invite to support, the “ethics of the good”, provided that it is not a strategic expediency required by necessity?


No good politics is aimed at promoting of “the good” and a democratic politics should not do this by definition. 

The aim of a democratic politics is, in this field, to secure that all citizen or group of citizens could live according their own conception of the good, if, and only if, they respect the form of life of others and remain within the limits of the law of the State. 

It is important, however, for a political leader to carry also moral authority. Obama does and people appreciate it. Yet he is the President of the United States. He will not, for a moment, neglect the interest of his country for the sake of any lofty ideology the present change in America towards a less consumerist way of life is the result of the economic crisis, but has also deep roots in the protestant, mostly puritan, tradition of the country. 


Your main polemical task has been the idea of totalitarism, with its charge of atrocities, that you and your family sadly personally experienced. Nevertheless, one can have the impression that a certain idea of totalitarism somehow has just altered its features. Do you reckon that the new forms of authoritarian regime are now showing themselves as a very depletion of the sense of freedom and the rights of the individual, as it were, from within our democratic constitutions?


I never cherished the illusion, that with the withering of european communist systems totalitarian threat is also matter of the past. In my view totalitarianism is as much a modern product as democracy. European totalitarian systems operated with secular ideologies, like racism or the ideology of the class, whereas contemporary totalitarian systems and movements operate with religions, first of all with islam, as an ideology. We do not know what comes next.


About your Lectio, we would like to ask you: to refer to the literary language, to the trascendent disposition of the poetic language in its attempt to speak the Other, is what is missing in the structure of the philosophic language? Likewise the speech of the Writings, the space designing the poetical function is an even more explicit and urgent invitation to “make the reader take a position on the validity claims connected with the philosophical text” (Habermas)? Could you please explain us the advantages and the limits of this new and fascinating perspective, even though – as Levinas’ criticism has insisted – not at all free from imperceptible ambiguity?


In my view the language of philosophy, worked out by metaphysics, included categories, or ground words on the one hand, and a special grammar, called method, on the other hand. The content of the ground words, like substance, attributes, reason, understanding, ideas, opinion versus true knowledge, principles, nature, God, and especially of the main characters like the good, the truth, the beautiful, have been always reinterpreted by each and every philosopher while their grammar has also been modified. This is the langue philosophy has lost, according to Foucault with whom i agree at this point.

The text by Habermas, you quoted, has little to do with this problem i briefly referred to. Perhaps, too briefly. 

Habermas offers a yardstick for the readers of a text, that is, for the hermeneutical exercise. I cannot speak about the limits or advantages of his position, for it is deeply rooted in his theory of communicative action, speech acts and discourse in general. Ambiguity is the birthmark of every philosophy, including the quoted statement and the theory it involves.

bottom of page