TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Agnes Heller and the Critique of Everyday Life

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Agnes Heller’s “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life,” from Telos 6 (Fall 1970).

The category of “everyday life” is a relatively new addition to the critical framework of Marxism. Since it was formally introduced by the French theorist Henri Lefèbvre (Critique de la vie quotidienne I, 1947; The Critique of Everyday Life, 1991), the critique of everyday life emerged in the post-1945 period as a response to the continuing stability of late capitalism and the integration of formerly radical elements of society within its logic of containment. From within the orbit of “actually existing socialism,” Agnes Heller’s critical anthropology of everyday life illuminates the integrative tendencies of both “great systems” during the Cold War via the prism of the alienated personality. While “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life” touches on numerous practical issues confronting the radical political movements on the late-1960s—including analysis of the ideological relevance of Che Guevara and the role of the sexual liberation movement in the formation non-alienated communities—its greatest and most enduring aspect is Heller’s focused and concise delineation of the phenomenology of personhood in the world-historical epoch of alienation.

It is undoubtedly true, and has been frequently emphasized, that Marx saw in the revolution not only the take-over of power by the revolutionary proletariat, but considered the whole operation—the negative abolition of private property—to be the pre-condition for that process which he called the positive abolition of private property, and, therefore, of alienation. This also implies the radical re-structuring of everyday life. It is equally unquestionable, and frequently stressed, that the human subject in everyday life treats his environment as “ready made,” “given”; that he spontaneously adopts the whole systems of customs and techniques proper to his environment; that his behavior is pragmatically patterned, i.e. what is essential for him is what guarantees success; that his concepts are the common coin; and that his knowledge, measured by philosophical standards, is mere opinion. . . . Our question, then, is this: accepting all these structural facts as true and basic, is everyday life necessarily alienated, and therefore, is a radical re-structuring of everyday life possible within the continuity of its fundamental structure? (213)

The “human subject” described in this passage conforms to Heller’s ideal-typical model of the alienated, or “particularistic,” person. “Particularity” here refers to a form of subjectivity that persists more or less in abstraction from “species-essential objectivations for-itself.” To the extent that the “particularistic” person fails to appropriate, within his or her everyday life, the “species-essential” values embedded in the cultural objectivations of morality, art, science and philosophy, he or she must, according to Heller, relate to the totality of everyday life as to a “transcendent given.” At the same time, Heller argues that the fetish character of everyday life is concomitant with the person’s incapacity to relate to herself, in her concrete uniqueness, from the mediated perspective of the species. The result is a social agent geared exclusively toward self-preservation, and a social agent whose pragmatically structured thought seeks only that which serves to propagate herself and those who constitute her immediate “integration.”

In contrast to the “particular” person, the “individual” person is characterized by the distance she is able to assume between herself and her particular needs, motives and desires. By appropriating higher-level values within the constellation of her everyday life, the individual is able to “consciously order” the demands placed upon her by everyday life. While both “particular” persons and “individuals” alike eat, sleep, make love, participate in collective discourse, and work, the “individual,” according to standards she has appropriated for herself, consciously chooses how she is to eat, sleep, make love, participate in social discourse, and work. The de-fetishization of everyday life unfolds in direct proportion to the appearance of the “individual” person. Crucially, for Heller, individual self-consciousness—that is, “I-consciousness” mediated by the forms of “species-essential objectivation in-itself,” particularly morality—cannot emerge in isolation from a community. The “individual” person is one who is able to transcend his particularistic and fetishized identification with conventional social integration and participate in the conscious construction of “organic” human relationships constituted around mutually shared and established norms. The political and economic transformation of society alone, Heller concludes, is insufficient to bring about a communist society. Social-structural revolution must be accompanied by the revolution in everyday life, the latter of which is inseparable from the “conscious” praxis of “organic” community formation.

The community is always present, either actually or in theory. The “particular” man can live in a world of pure mediation, since he always selects from among the mediated relationships, conceived as quasi-transcendent, and from the integrated totalities into which he was born (nation, class, rank, etc.) whatever answers to his interests of the moment, his self-preservation, and his convenience. He is a being that acts in a communal way, but he is not yet a communal being. The individual however, defetishizes the world. His Weltanschauung is selectivity; and this selectivity involves precisely the choosing of a community. The shaping of the life-conduct and the choice of community are two aspects of the same process. (217)

There can be little doubt that Heller’s critique of everyday life transcends the concrete political agendas touted by the communist movement during the latter half of the twentieth century. Though the cultural possibilities facing contemporary political movements differ significantly from those which Heller and others confronted, her insight into the structures of conformity in the epoch of alienation retains its power and relevance in the twenty-first century. It does so, I believe, not in the least by virtue of the role it gives to systemic cultural pursuits, including most notably philosophy, science, and art. These activities discover and give expression to the highest ideals and practical aspirations of the human species. And, the responsibilities incumbent upon these pursuits are no less threatened by professionalization, commodification, commercialization, and ideological subsumption today than they were in late 1960s. Furthermore, the quest for collective bonds constituted by shared strong values, which go beyond egoism, utility, and self-interest, remains a vital human need. While one may, with some justification, be wary of the utopian tendencies inherent in Heller’s demand to universalize “immediate” human relationships, her reconstruction of the links between self-interest and social conformity gives a clear indication of the consequences engendered by the continued hegemony of our “particularistic” and alienated system of values. By throwing into question such values, the emancipatory role of “species-objectivation for-itself” cannot be over-emphasized.

Heller’s critique of everyday life is, of course, both wide-ranging in scope and subtle in nuance. Its introduction of her key ideas here has been necessarily general. Yet “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life” is both an illuminating introduction for, and succinct summary of, this critique. As such, it can be a crucial reference for those seeking to engage with what the sociologist Michael Gardiner has recently described as a counter-tradition of interdisciplinary discourse that works toward transformation in equal measure to understanding.

Read the full version of Agnes Heller’s “The Marxist Theory of Revolution and the Revolution of Everyday Life” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

Comments are closed.