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Courage Before the Break

Agnes Heller’s Theory of “Radical Needs” Revisited

“Good persons exist, how are they possible?” With this question, inimitable Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller outlines her philosophical territory. As readers of critical theory, it is hard to know how to begin expressing our admiration for the energetic grande dame of our tradition. One anecdote might suffice: Heller’s mentor, the great, but perpetually troubled, Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, wanted his apprentice to write a thesis about Lenin’s ethics. She could not abide this. “Lenin had no ethics,”[1] she says, because ethical action is a matter of individuals’ subjective motivations — our social experiences, reflections, and personal intentions — not the product of a crudely mechanical historical process deduced and disseminated by party leaders.

Influenced by the events of 1968, Heller’s self-described “new-leftist book” The Theory of Need in Marx has finally been republished as part of Verso’s celebrated Radical Thinkers series. [2] At the time of writing, the Hungarian authorities would not allow her to travel, lecture at home or abroad, or even have a job due to her “anti-communist mind.” [3] The truth is that Heller challenges a version of Marx for whom technology and practical know-how are historically independent factors in a developmental story about production. She argues instead that Marx’s real concern was with humanity’s radical material, cultural, and spiritual needs. This forms the paradox of Marx’s theory of alienation. Alienation produces needs pointing towards the transcendence of capitalism, transforming radical theory into a material force. However, this transcendence can only be achieved if the need for it already exists, and we can create social institutions corresponding to our needs. There is, however, no guarantee that these needs are embodied or activated by the revolutionary struggle of the working class.

Sinuously argued and dense with quotations from both the early and later Marx, The Theory of Need in Marx is evidence of the coincidence of Heller’s political and theoretical purposes from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. Reading it now, it looks like a pivotal moment in the whole development of her philosophy. Not a clean “break,” not even a breach, with her earlier question “What is ethics?”, but a stage in her life’s way, the book represents a peculiar point in Heller’s intellectual maturity. At this point, Heller argues for the coming of the “future society of associated producers” as the legitimate goal of Marx’s thought, but never states that the radical self-transformation of our needs or the structure of our consciousness is inevitable. (44)

This anticipates her rejection of the historical necessity of communism according to an omniscient “grand narrative” for an agnostic, skeptical “reflective postmodernism.” This way of thinking avoids diagnosing our historical consciousness as “progressive” or “regressive,” asking instead how we can be responsible for the present, remaining motivated by the demand for justice within imperfect liberal democratic societies.[4] After this point, Heller is guided by the sober “sense of being in charge” [5] of thinking through the incomparable, unique contingency of specific events without presupposing a grand plan, goal, or tendency for history as a whole, because she has learned that “one cannot and should not put philosophy into the service of a political cause, even if the cause is a good or beneficiary one.”[6]

Throughout The Theory of Need, Heller presents a complex, nuanced picture of Marx. This Marx is wrought by contradictions, but his inconsistencies — contradictory concepts of “contradiction,” Kantian ethics, Enlightenment anthropology — are precisely what proves his genius. Forcing coherence onto Marx means, for Heller,

to deprive him of precisely the main source of his greatness: his feverish and many-sided search for truth. …The immortality, the living content of Marx’s thought which transcends historical epochs, is based precisely upon this brilliant lack of coherence. (88)

Heller demonstrates this by entwining two still-detachable strands of argument. She offers an interpretation of Marx’s theory of need, which serves as the foundation of the three “discoveries” of his later writings (labor-power, surplus-value, and use-value) and plays “the hidden but principle role” (27) in his economic categories. Heller’s modesty means she denies that she develops her own theory of needs in the book. [7] However, she clearly offers us a theory of alienation and its transcendence, motivated by the question of how radical theory can become practice, gripping us by actualizing our “radical needs.” This forms Heller’s main argument: radical needs are those basic human needs for creative self-objectification and community that are inherent to the functioning of capitalist society — it endlessly reproduces these needs, but they are essentially unsatisfiable within it.

Heller’s starting point is to interpret Marx’s demystifying definition of the commodity — the “elementary form” and embryonic contradiction of capitalist societies — as something that “satisfies human needs.” [8] Marx never explicitly defines “needs.” offering a circular description instead: need-satisfaction is the condition for the existence of a commodity because exchange-value cannot appear without need-satisfying use-values, but use-values can exist without exchange-value if they satisfy needs, which defines a use-value.

To make sense of this, Heller describes Marx’s two linked anthropological categories of “need”: survival-geared “natural” needs (e.g., food, warmth, clothing, shelter) and “social” needs. “Natural” needs are, however, changed by their social satisfaction because human needs differ from those of animals as humanity pushes back and socializes nature, armed with industrial technology. The socially-produced character of “natural” needs means that, for Heller, only social needs exist, though nature remains “the existential limit to the satisfaction of needs,” (33) the limit of the reproduction of human life itself.

For Heller, a “need” is also an unequal subject-object correlation, (34) but it makes no sense to talk about the satisfaction of a “need” in the singular because each social formation throughout human history is characterised by its own distinctive system of needs. Our needs are always guided by specific desires, passions, longings, and productive capacities. The relation between desire and its object is, however, always alienated, because the constant production of new needs spiritually impoverishes us. This impoverishment occurs through the inversion of the relation between means and ends, quality and quantity. Not only does the capitalist mode of production turn every end (i.e., creative self-objectification) into a means for the satisfaction of private ends (i.e., capital accumulation), and every means (i.e., labour) into an end in itself, it alienates us from our needs by turning qualitative needs into the infinitely insatiable quantitative “need to have” (57): the need for more possessions, money, fame, or power because what we are and what we have is never enough.

Heller’s Marx is essentially a Kantian ethicist rejecting the standpoint of political economy — and the purely instrumental relationships of the civil society it justifies — for violating the prohibition on using others as a means to an end. Thus, Marx presents a future communist society as an ethical imperative that, as Heller puts it, “should be realized” (74), though Heller’s account is colored by some major worries. Because she thinks the working classes are no longer the exclusive bearers of the radical needs generated by capitalism, we can no longer simply “assign” objectivity to the ethical necessity of revolutionary action:

If it is indeed right to say … that the working class can free itself only by freeing humanity too, it does not follow from this however that in terms of historical reality the working class actually wishes to free itself and that its needs are in fact radical needs. (89)

In Heller’s later view, human freedom can only be brought about by pluralistic movements for social justice, anticipated by her statement that rebellion against the manipulation of needs in advanced consumer societies is of the “utmost importance.” (52) However, Heller’s is subtly different from the discussions of revolt against need-manipulation offered by new-leftist peers like Herbert Marcuse and André Gorz, and she criticises the consumer society as much as she does Eastern Bloc dictatorships.

Marcuse and Gorz both thought of the revolutionary subject by identifying radical needs with the radical oppression of certain groups (the working class, women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, or students). Heller’s approach, however, is to separate the theory of need from the theory of class, re-evaluating the latter by refusing to arbitrarily identify which qualitative needs are unsatisfiable under capitalism. Official Marxism, meanwhile, manipulatively stated that proletarian “class interests” were opposed to the contradictory relationship between “particular” and “general” interests in bourgeois civil society. For Heller, this exposes the limitations of the worldview assumed by those regimes: they are unable to think of transcending the fetishization of needs within the capitalist system of needs.

Heller’s theory of radical needs is, as Jean Cohen put it in her contemporary review, “inherently democratic and self-legislating,” [9] because she challenges the “dictatorship of needs” on the part of grim-faced party functionaries, dogmatically anti-capitalist new-leftists, and “moderate” conservatives alike. This applies especially to the question of “luxury needs,” because she “could not tolerate anyone telling me or anyone else what our ‘real’ needs were, and which of them were ‘false.’” [10] Heller argues that no specific object has the quality “luxury.” Luxuriousness is determined by whether something satisfies the needs of the majority of the population or the minority with higher purchasing power. This is because every society founded on the division of labour reproduces their separation from “necessary” needs. Necessary needs are shaped by the culture, morality, and customs of a particular class in a given society. Marx mentions the English working classes’ need for gin, but it applies equally to access to, say, regionally-specific groceries for minority cultures. Heller says that the opposition of necessary and luxury needs will be overcome in the society of free producers, where luxury needs will cease to exist, and the system of necessary needs will develop into the “free” needs of individuals. (37)

Heller’s critique of the luxury/necessary opposition can be directed at authoritarian regimes and both mainstream conservatives and classical liberals alike. She decries authoritarians’ false identification of “social needs” with transindividual “needs of society.” On that logic, these needs can only count as genuine needs if they are determined by party officials, who act as “representative incarnations of universality.” (67-8) According to them, if “social” needs are the “genuine” needs of individuals, those who are not able to prove their needs count as “social” have not recognized their own “genuine” needs, which must be decided on their behalf. In the case of conservatives and classical liberals, we can compare Heller’s critique to Charles Dickens’s send-up of vulgar utilitarian industrialist Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times, who dismisses his workers’ demands for basic employment rights and decent pay as the luxurious expectation “to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.”[11]

Heller’s compelling main thesis is that the inherence, endless reproduction, and necessary unsatisfiability of radical needs in capitalist society means that “it is not the Being of radical needs that transcends capitalism, but their satisfaction” (76); the mere existence of radical needs does not necessitate the coming of the society of associated producers, let alone actively bringing about a truly just social order. Though, again, it need not be the working classes, this antinomy can be resolved only by the activity of the bearers of an ethical imperative — the “collective Ought” — for whom radical needs arise under capitalism. That is, us: individuals who develop their personal qualities, attributes, and abilities in relation to the human species, but who, materially and spiritually impoverished, our talents frustrated and wasted by the social division of labour as the species is materially enriched, do not participate in the wealth of the social whole.

The problem for Heller is that Marx offers two imperfectly distinguished versions of the collective Ought. This gives us two conflicting options for ethical and political action — two distinct versions of what it is to think and bring about a truly just society — based on two mutually contradictory versions of the concept of “contradiction.”

Version one, a Fichtean “existential opportunism,” holds that alienation stimulates and is embodied by transcendent radical needs transforming the subject into the collective. This is because this view takes the commodity as the embryo and form of movement of the antinomies of capitalist society as a whole, which confront us as quasi-natural economic laws shattered only by “total social revolution.” (81) However, in version two, a Hegelian “economic necessitarianism,” inherent economic laws — the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production — do not merely confront us in a fetishized form, but themselves causally necessitate and transform the collective Ought. Here, Heller finds a paradox: that “if the negation of the negation were a natural law, no kind of radical need whatever would be necessary for the downfall of capitalism.” (79) All we would have to do is sit and wait, patiently observing history’s mechanical cogs turn, or leaving an empty chair at the table of political concepts so the communist Messiah might join us for dinner.

By picking up on not merely the conventional Aristotelian “ethical” Marx, but the Kantian Marx — unrecognizable next to the naturalistic, functionalist, or “scientifically-authoritative” image for so long used towards anti-democratic ends in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — Heller responds not just to the permanent crisis of capitalist society, but to the disorientation of modernity itself. As she puts it with a spectacular rhetorical flourish in A Theory of Modernity,

The threat of cosmic contingency is coeval with the emergence of the modern mechanistic view of the universe, with the substitution of the infinite matter of the immense necropolis for the living and ensouled divine Cosmos, and of the brave new world where the single person is just a Zero, where he or she does not count, and where God is dead, for the eternal governance is lost.[12]

Heller chooses to lay the wound of cosmic and historical contingency bare, never pushing a universal philosophy of history. Later, she describes Marx’s explicit connection of intellectual, moral, social, and technological progress as a “seductive yet fragile dream of infinite gains without losses”[13] through the infinite development of the productive forces. However, by constantly reiterating the goal of bringing about the society of associated producers, Heller anticipates her later focus on “civic courage” because “the measure in which man has become the highest object of need for other men determines the level of humanization of human needs.” (41)

The human being is, for Heller, a perpetually disappointed creature, but this doesn’t mean that we cannot think and act together towards radical social change. Our thwarted hopes, instead, make it utterly essential that we continue this project. To read Heller’s text now is to ask what kind of Marx we want to read. This is especially important in the new “culture wars.”

Despite the popularity of Bernie Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, social democratic parties are in decline, and mainstream politicians have largely abandoned a universal class-oriented project. America is currently governed by what Timothy Snyder has called a Russian-style “sado-populist” oligarchy, and throughout Europe, from the “Brexiteers” to Germany’s AfD, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and Hungary’s Fidesz, there’s a renewed flirtation with strongman jingoism adapted for specific nationalistic delusions. Certain tendencies in left-wing activism lean towards self-cannibalizing factionalism, clashing with a far-right fired by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” recalling the fascist attack on Jewish “cultural Bolshevism.” This cannot be exposed or reiterated enough.

From Heller’s perspective, the unreflective self-righteousness of the left and the crudely self-justifying parochialism of the right symptomize the decay of value-preserving pluralistic communities, and the impossibility of integrating young people into society — not even as its critics — without them. “For a certain European youth,” she says,

freedom, democracy, and even work no longer have an intrinsic value. … Unlike the revolting youth of 1968, these youths do not entertain utopian ideas; they say only “no” and never “yes.” They express in rage that they do not belong to any society at all, and they do not carry any sense of responsibility.[14]

Whatever we make of this claim, it marks the unrelenting courage of Agnes Heller’s convictions before and after her break with Marx. Far from vainly asserting that we know how to build a totally “just” society, Heller’s Marx gives us a vocabulary for talking about human values and dignity, but without any guarantees. Heller’s focus on the needs of alienated individuals anticipates her later critique of the unsatisfiability of our needs and desires within any of the social worlds we presently imagine. The task, then, is precisely to set ourselves to work imagining something new, letting the soul burn with the flames of a political imagination that once fueled utopian desires, while remaining healthily skeptical of putting utopian models into practice.

Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and adjunct instructor-type based in Vienna, Austria. He is currently studying for a PhD in Philosophy at The Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.


[1] Agnes Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011), p. 9-10.

[2] Agnes Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx (London: Verso, 2018). References given in-text.

[3] Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy, p. 23.

[4] Agnes Heller, A Theory of History (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), Ch.1; Agnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), Ch.1.

[5] Agnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity, p. 4.

[6] Agnes Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy, p. 8.

[7] Ibid, p. 37.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol.1 , translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 125.

[9] Jean Cohen, ‘The Theory of Need in Marx’, Telos, 33 (1977), 170-184, p. 177.

[10] Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy, p. 39.

[11] Charles Dickens, Hard Times: For These Times, edited by Kate Flint (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 72.

[12] Heller, A Theory of Modernity, p. 6.

[13] Ibid, p. 31.

[14] Heller, A Short History of My Philosophy, p.26

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