Book Review: Critical Theories and the Budapest School

Jonathan Pickle and John Rundell (eds.), Critical Theories and the Budapest School: Politics, Culture, and Modernity (Routledge, 2018)

Reviewed by J.F. Dorahy, Macquarie University, Australia

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

The last decades have seen a steadily increasing stream of monographs, essays, collections and special issues on the theorists collectively referred to as The Budapest School. Prodigious writers and astute social critics themselves, it is scarcely surprising that ‘The School’s’ members should have attracted this modest, though significant, swell of interest. Long associated with the polarizing Hungarian philosopher and literary theorist Georg Lukács, the members of the Budapest School have, for some time now, been more or less widely known for their early works of Marx interpretation and their path-breaking critique of ‘actually existing socialism.’ From the formative experiences of humanist opposition to Soviet-style totalitarianism and intellectual exile, have emerged, however, oeuvres immense in scope and remarkably diverse in character. The collection of essays edited by Jonathan Pickle and John Rundell and published by Routledge under the title Critical Theories and the Budapest School captures, in a hitherto unprecedented fashion, precisely these qualities. As such, it stands as an important volume, not only for those scholars already well-versed in the writings of the Budapest School, but also for those working within contemporary critical theory more broadly who are looking to come to grips with this challenging group of thinkers.

The collection is divided into three sections, each organised around a particular thematic unity. Part 1 includes the contributions of Peter Beilharz, Pauline Johnson and Sandor Radnóti. A diverse group of essays to be sure; yet, a group which, according to the editors share a common orientation to the motifs of cultural traffic and cross-fertilisation, migration and disintegration. Whilst this is certainly true, this first selection of essays also testifies to but some of the gaps in the contemporary literature on the Budapest School. Beilharz’s essay, for example, weaves together conceptual and socio-historical analyses, intimate detail and wide-ranging perspective, to raise the question: to what extent are we justified in referring to the Budapest ‘School’ in the first place? Perhaps the most pregnant of Beilharz’s reflections, however, relate to the still-to-be-written history of the experience of the Budapest School in Australia – a history, it is worth pointing out, that is intertwined with not only that of Thesis Eleven itself but also a number of contemporaneous institutional transformations of, and conflicts within, the Australian academy. Taking her lead from Wendy Brown’s critique of neoliberal feminism, Johnson turns to ‘the Budapest School women’ as a means by which social critique might recover the radical legacies of Western feminism. This essay signifies a valuable, timely and much needed intervention, not the least for the light it sheds on the contemporary relevance Maria Márkus’ conception of the politicization of needs. Still, its cursory and quite dismissive treatment of Heller’s theory of radical needs begs to be expanded upon and further developed. Consequently, the full scope of Heller’s potential contribution to the project championed by Johnson and others also remains to be seen. The feeling of ‘work still to be done’ is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt that in reading Radnóti’s survey of the literary-critical and aesthetic writings of Ferenc Fehér. Fehér is an enigmatic figure in the history of the Budapest School. Needles to say, his path-breaking and original interpretation of the postmodern condition, the condition of ‘living-after’ the grand-narratives of high-modernism, is well-known – as are his many historico-political analyses and his work on the theory of modernity. However, for those limited to English or even the languages of Western Europe, coming to some kind of synthesising reckoning with Fehér oeuvre proves an immensely difficult task. Radnóti’s work is of great help here. It offers a rare insight into a body of work, much of it published only in Hungarian, that has for the most part remained unknown to scholars in the West. Exile appears as a key theme; so too, and perhaps even more forcefully, does what Fehér and, before him, Lukács, theorises as theproblematicindividual.

Part 2 of Critical Theories and the Budapest School begins by reprising themes introduced in the first part, whilst situating them within a more explicitly political frame of reference. Waldemar Bulira’s work reads the dissolution of the Budapest School in emigration through the internal tensions of the seminal Dictatorship over Needs (1983): a text which, he rightly claims, ranks as one of the Hungarians’ most original contributions to the tradition of critical theory. Similarly, Aaron Jaffe investigates the ‘radical potential’ of the Marxist anthropology developed in the 1960s by both Heller and György Márkus, with a specific emphasis on the ‘critical force’ of the theory of needs. Jaffe’s is a supremely original engagement with the material. It is no small feat to bring a fresh perspective to texts now over half and century old and amongst the most frequently interpreted of any written by these two authors. According to Jaffe, the philosophical framework developed by Heller and Márkus warrants contemporary attention to the extent that it promises to facilitate a transition in sociological analysis from descriptive to evaluative perspectives. In other words, the Marxist-humanism of the early Budapest School offers, Jaffe claims, a philosophical-anthropological foundation for a critical theory of contemporary capitalism. Few would or could dispute this claim; what is at stake is the contemporary viability of this framework. Post-War critical theory has not suffered from a dearth of social theories ‘with normative content.’ Subsequently, one cannot help but feel that Jaffe’s aims may have been better served by bringing this framework into more explicit dialogue with the comparable critical-theoretical paradigms developed by, say, Jürgen Habermas, or more recently Axel Honneth – both of which are characterised by the presence of more or less strong philosophical-anthropological foundations and, I would argue, encounter more or less significant difficulties in the immanent critique of contemporary economic systems. Given the aims of the present volume, this seems like a particularly striking omission. 

Fortunately, this kind of dialogue is very much realised in the subsequent essays of Jonathan Pickle and John Grumley. The former offers an illuminating evaluation of Márkus’ radically historicist critique of Hannah Arendt’s ontologizing employment of the originally Aristotelian categories of praxis and poiēsis. The upshot of this detailed and conscientious reading is a fruitful juxtaposition of Arendt’s classicist conception of cultural production and Márkus’ more strictly modernist cultural pragmatics that problematises the foundationalist assumptions of Arendt’s thought in a way that is relevant to both contemporary philosophies of action and the lamentably neglected philosophy of culture. The latter represents a compelling critique of a number of major contemporary works in the field of biopolitics via a historically and textually rich engagement with the post-Marxist political theory of Heller and Fehér. As Grumley points out, few contemporary scholars would associate these authors with the problematic of biopolitics, fewer still are those who would have actually read their work on this topic. Those who have will know full-well that Heller and Fehér’s critique of contemporary biopolitics is highly polemic, combative and at times impressionistic. As such, Grumley is to be applauded for his recovery of the theoretical substance of this work. What emerges from this reading is a conception of biopolitics that not only offers some valuable insights into its properly political significance but also succeeds in situating this phenomenon within a broader understanding of the antinomies of modernity. Today, everyday life is imbued with a biopolitical dimension that is unprecedented in scope and significance. The ambiguities surrounding this development have become ever more evident. In this context, both Heller and Fehér’s text itself, and indeed Grumley’s assessment of it, take on a particular salience – for they challenge us to rethink how we are to relate to this development and, in the process, disclose what is at stake when politics privileges the value of ‘life’ over ‘freedom.’ 

If, then, the legacy and fate of biopolitics undoubtedly figures as one of the more fruitful avenues of dialogue between the works of the Budapest School and broader trends within contemporary social criticism, it is clear from Michael Gardiner’s excellent essay ‘On the Open Utopia,’ that it is by no means the only one. Among the many merits of Gardiner’s work is the clarity with which he demonstrates the distance that separates Heller’s and Fehér’s mature political philosophy from Lukács’ ‘messianic Marxism.’ Whilst there is very little reason to think that the members of the Budapest School ever shared the specific political vision of the early Lukács, it was not until the mid-1980s that Fehér and Heller explicitly subjected it a sustained critique. Indeed, Gardiner does an exceptional job of establishing the many connections between Fehér’s and Heller’s critique of the redemptive paradigm in modern politics and their turn to a stance which they themselves would refer to as ‘reflective postmodernism.’ Through his analysis of the ‘pluralistic utopianism’ of Fehér and Heller’s post-Marxist works, Gardiner also succeeds in highlighting that unique tension between scepticism and commitment, even the irony, that typifies particularly Heller’s later thought. In so doing, he offers a valuable statement of Heller and Fehér’s continuing relevance to debates surrounding utopianism and emancipatory politics. Section 2 concludes as it began: consolidating themes raised by previous essays whilst at the same time anticipating the direction of those to come. David Roberts’s ruminations on Heller and the Absolute Present of historical consciousness both resist paraphrase and demand careful attention. Creative in the fullest, this is less a work of ‘scholarship’ than an exercise in active philosophizing – of thinking with and through a great mind on the question of today dwelling within the prisonhouse of historicity. The insights it provides into both Heller’s writings on history and their connections to Hegel and Benjamin make Roberts’s essay an essential companion to what are not only Heller’s most difficult works but also her most important.

The third and final section focuses more directly on the works of the two most widely read of the Budapest School theorists: Agnes Heller and György Márkus. The sole treatment of Márkus’ incomplete and fragmentary philosophy of cultural modernity, János Kis’ contribution expertly reconstructs Márkus’ magnum opus Culture, Science and Society (2011) from the perspective of the specific antinomies and challenges facing philosophy today. It is characteristic of his work that Márkus’ philosophy operates at an exceedingly high level of abstraction and it is among Kis’ most significant accomplishments to have treated it in such a concrete manner. As such, his essay offers an ideal entry point into Márkus extensive body of work. For those who have already made their way beyond its threshold, Kis’ essay will be of interest for other reasons. Márkus is, of course, a great dialectician. He is also a deeply sceptical thinker; above all, however, his scepticism is directed towards his own conclusions. Kis’ essay shows with great acuity the ways in which these qualities engender within Márkus’ oeuvre a series of constitutive tensions and conceptual ambiguities – tensions and ambiguities which, in turn, exemplify the paradoxes of critical philosophy and the ethos of Enlightenment in the ‘times of late modernity.’ 

Following Kis’ contribution the volume concludes via a series of essays from some of the most prominent interpreters of Heller’s work writing today. Each of which, in a vein similar to Kis, proposes a specific vantage point from which to survey the whole. John Rundell’s piece realizes this aim with particular skill. As Rundell persuasively argues, at the centre of Heller’s philosophical writings is a substantive theory of action that pays due, and equal, heed to the interiority of the subject and the ineliminable presence of socially constituted rationalities in his/her intentional strivings. This is an impeccably researched essay that helpfully situates Heller’s theory of social action with reference to, and as distinct from, a wide range perhaps more well known and certainly more influential approaches. Through its understanding of the intersubjective-constitutive role of the social imaginary of freedom in the ‘enlargement’ of the self and formation of ethical bonds of co-responsibility, it also makes a strong case for thinking that the relative neglect of Heller’s theory of action, in comparison to such approaches, is to the real detriment of contemporary thought. 

The contributions of Marcia Morgan and Katie Terezakis take up, with varying degrees of success, the changing reception of Kant in the works of Heller and Lukács and Heller’s conception of the dramatization of existential choice in existential comedy respectively. Whilst Sergio Mariscal reconstructs the image of the ‘good friend’ that emerges from Heller’s writings on aesthetics and the theory of feelings. To be sure, there is much to laud in the latter: the careful scholarship and eloquent prose, the novel reading of a hitherto unrecognised yet evidently key theoretical undercurrent within Heller’s work all make this a notable undertaking. Also notable here is Mariscal’s engagement with Heller’s early book on Aristotle (cited in Spanish translation as Aristóteles y el Mundo Antiguo (1983), a work translated from the German Die Ethik der Aristoteles und das antike Ethos) which has received, to my knowledge, almost no English-language commentary to date. On all fronts, then, Mariscal’s contribution is a welcome one. For its part, Terezakis’ essay is, without doubt, among the very best treatments of Heller’s Existenzphilosophie available. Heller is widely known for her involvement in the ‘New-Left’ in the form of a theory of radical needs; sociologists have duly recognised her work on both the theorisation of modernity and everyday life; Heller the philosopher, for reasons that Terezakis makes remarkably clear, takes her place among the great canon of modern existentialists. Terezakis has admirably succeeded in portraying Heller’s philosophy as it is – in all its sophistication, depth and resoluteness. Her detailed and rich account of the existentialist core of Heller’s mature philosophy, its relationship to Kant and, in particular, Kierkegaard, and the comedic portrayal of existential choice in, for example, Kafka, make Terezakis’ essay required reading for anyone interested in the later works of Agnes Heller. An altogether different encounter with the comedic phenomenon awaits readers of Peter Murphy’s inspiring analysis of the comic political condition. Heller’s monograph Immortal Comedy (2005) figures as the vital backdrop to Murphy’s reflections on a bifurcated modernity read through the lens of that which makes us laugh. The present context cannot be used to adequately convey its full significance. Suffice to say that Murphy’s acerbic critique of the dominant trends of progressivism and totalitarianism, not less than his tempered valorisation of the conservative politics of wit, is imbued with a force of conviction that is rare in academic writing. Similarly, there is a frank intelligence and stark honesty here that is not only refreshing but liberating. 

Like Murphy’s standout contribution, the essays collected in Critical Theories and the Budapest School both challenge and stimulate. As a whole, this volume opens up new areas of investigation whilst combining accessibility, critical and comparative insight with an analytical rigour that establish it as a key reference today and ensure that it will remain so for some time to come.

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