Agnes Heller  


Agnes Heller

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We are all born strangers. Genetically endowed for language use and social life, but not for using any particular language or to accommodate to any specific culture,  social life. The word into which we are thrown by accident is alien, unknown. We have to learn to dovetail our inborn capacities to the language ,customs, requirements  of the world into which we were thrown. We have to understand this particular world that will he our home. This is never entirely accomplished task. Up to a degree we always remain strangers, this is why we need some personal security, love and friendship.

Children still ask questions lie 'Why is this so?' 'Why is this permitted and not something else?' Slowly, the current answers to those questions will be taken for granted or the questions never anymore asked.. Adults assimilate to their world. Whatever they have learned at home s they accepts as true, whatever their world considers  right is right. Whenever I do things  my world expects me to do, I will be praised, if I do it not, I will blamed and  punished.

Yet, others in other worlds believe in something  else, they follow other customs. They are the strangers.  We are afraid of them. Why? Because if their customs, believes might be right or true, we lose our home,  that is the feeling of certainty, security. We are at home in our world. But for the others we are the strangers They see us differently than we see ourselves, as we see them differently than they see themselves.

What I briefly described  here is the basic  anthropological stance. But the subject of this basic anthropological stance, the 'we' can be entirely different. The main issue is the content of the 'we', and the question what makes someone a member of  a 'we'' and someone else a member of the 'them'.

With the exception of some isolated tribes of the rain forest no tribe, ethnic group, people live in total isolation. All of them have contact with strangers. The strangers can become allies ,and even  friends. Then they will be just 'different' and no more a strangers.

Everyone shares as one of the constituents of  their personal identity,  several more or less general identities. In a world of mutual dependencies  the main 'we' is the identity with the place one occupies in the social hierarchy.  ''We.  the serfs of Lord X.,'  'we, the citizens of Y. city'. Broader is the identification with a specific ethnicity (celtic)or locality (X.village), or with a religion, (atholic) or with a people,(French) and, at least in Europe,  also with a nation . In the times of Enlightenment the broadest, all encompassing identity appeared on the scene:' we are all human beings'.

Since nation states are mainly European products, I have to speak briefly of the birth of 'national identity'.

Nations were constituted from people. Europe, a small continent, used to accommodate many thousand  peoples  many of them living sometimes in the same territory, even in the same city, village  beside one another. They were not the main, not the most 'strangers', since got to used   to one another, they did not wage wars against each other.

European wars, beside the remnants of tribal wars, were wars between dynasties, monarchies and religions. The most devastating European war before the emergence of nation states was the thirty years  war. Both monarchic  ,dynastic wars and religious wars mobilized certain ethnic  groups, people, who dwelled in a given territory. Some of them considered themselves also as a 'nation' within a given Empire, but there were no nation states.

 When talking about 'people' 'of Europe we have to consider that two different master narratives composed  moved sooner or later into the center of the European cultural identity. One was the Bible, the other the Greek,  Roman  political tradition. As a result Europe inherited  two, entirely different concept of 'people'.

The first was the Biblical concept.  Jan Assmann, in his latest book, 'Exodus' documented that the world 'people appeared first in the Hebrew language. The Egyptian  had no word for it. On the Mount Sinai God gave law to the people (am) of Israel, that is for all of them, men, women, and children, irrespective of their social status.'People' thus encompasses everyone who shares the same historical past (heritage) and the same faith..The people,  that is everyone enters into contract with God. In modern times democratic constitutions  followed this Biblical model. The well known' We the People' of the American constitution is based entirely on this model. Yet  the Biblical understanding of 'people' was  not limited to the political field. Men and women were supposed to belong  to the same 'people' if they spoke the same language or dialect, lived in the same locality, shared stories, fairy tales, customs, habits, which were considered ethnic characteristics.

The other (especially Roman) concept of  ' people'  was different and also accepted. Rome as a political entity consisted of  'Senatus populusque Romanus', that is of the patricians and the plebeians, the people. Only those who were not counts, lords, nobleman, patricians of a fee city were termed 'the people', mainly the peasants  and the laboring strata of the city. The 'people' were the then the underprivileged ,the manual workers.  Newspapers in defense of the underprivileged, manual workers and peasants chose often the title  'Friends of the people or ''Voice of the people'. 

In contrast to the use of the word 'people', the terms ''natio' (nation) or 'gens' were originally applied to gentility, to the nobility, the gentry,  to a social strata  priding with a real or made up long  line of ancestors. They became also the first nationalist, since they defended together with their own land also the French soil, the English soil, the German soil, before the emergence of nation states, within the Empires.  Nationalism, that is the absolute commitment, the identity with 'nation' as the main all encompassing identity , filtered from up to down, uniting the upper classes with the 'people'. This is the reason why nation states were established only in societies which were earlier feudal societies and consisting at the 18 century by estates .By accepting nationalism, passionately embracing 'nation' as the main identity, the political dividing line between the three estates (nobility, clergy, burgher)slowly vanished. As a result the  so called  people, mainly  the third estate, assimilated itself  to the upper classes, taking over their ideology. Some of the thus unified people claimed to be the 'nation' and started to receive a  privileged status in an Empire or among several princedoms, republics. Very much depending on the constitution of the dominant people or state of  a nation in statu nascendi, nationalism at first could be combined with  republican ideas as much as with anti-modern  conservatism.

Nation won its victory in July 1914.It won its victory against the internationalism of the working class and the cosmopolitanism of the bourgeoisie. The original sin of Europe was the ugly infant of nationalism. As a result, all former empires started to break up into nation states. This tendency continues till the present days.

There is, however, an inbuilt contradiction , or rather a paradox to the emergence of the European  nation states.

The first nation state,  France, 'la nation', carried  also the promises of the enlightenment The first constitution was a constitution of 'man' and 'citizen'. That is, the universal identity (human being)  was  combined with the other (French citizen). I do not need to follow the course of  history, only to point at July 1914, to show how this identity turned out to become a contradiction, an internal tension, where 'human being' was always on the losing end. French hated the German, German hated the French .And in the process of breaking up empires Austrians, Hungarians, Slovakians, Serbs, Croatians hated one another, and so did Turks and Greeks.

Still, all men are born free. The slogan of 'universal identity' could not be entirely forgotten.  This 'idea' is however an unfriendly bedfellow of the anthropological  basic stance. After all, we continue to be born into a particular world, not into 'the' world. We still learn as infants a particular language, and assume a particular collective identity. We still regard others, who do not share our identity as 'strangers'' .It is still true, that we see ourselves and judge ourselves differently than the others (the strangers) see and judge us. We have mostly no reason to give up this basic anthropological stance, which offers as security, the feeling to belong, to have a common end, to be at home.

What has changed them?.The existence of a normative idea Kant called  'regulative practical'. Because of the existence of the universal idea as a measure, those preliminary judgments, prejudgments, we share with our clan, can be unmasked by others -and also by ourselves-, as prejudices in the pejorative sense of the word.

Since all of us shares more or less the anthropological basis stance, there are no men, women, no people without prejudices, none who would never pass judgments on things, among them on  other, alien cultures, people, religions ,customs, without having  personal experiences, without being in the possession of controlled knowledge. We all receive numberless opinions, judgments, information from our environment and we accept them unless he have good reasons to reject them.

We normally speak of prejudices in negative sense whenever the judgment includes or motivates   rejection, exclusion, hatred, whenever it is rigid, in resisting opposite arguments experiences. The most typical prejudices are racial, national, religious, social, cultural, and sexual. The target of negative prejudices, of all of them are the strangers. Those who are unlike us, threatening us, dangerous, thus believed to be evil .This is why we have to reject them, exclude them , fight them, hate them, despise them. 

In traditional times strangers were sometimes, more often than not 'naturally' treated  as enemies, barbarians, devil's disciples. Yet, since the idea of 'Humans' as such was created, since Kant understood the moral law as 'humankind in us' since we embrace the whole world with Schiller an Beethoven as our brothers, it is no more natural what used to be natural before the times of enlightenment.. From this time onwards there is a precipice not just a gap between the anthropological basic stance on the one hand  and the universal value of Man on the other hand.. Europe of nationalist fanaticism and Europe of humanistic universalism are the same Europe. Europe as the  embodiments of a paradox.

 To repeat: nation states and their governing ideology, nationalism, appears essentially simultaneously with the credo of the  universal value of Humankind. 

One could say, that if there is a proof, this is the proof of the hypocritical essence of universalism. There were perhaps no times, when so many humans were murdered by nationalism,   racism and other ideologies, as in the 20 century under the universal sun of Humanism. .Others could retort, that genocide became for us evil precisely because of the validity of universal values. After all, world literature begins with genocide. Troy was devastated, all men killed women taken as slaves, but many generations enjoyed all this as a beautiful story. Carthage was  sown  with salt and whether this was true or not, the Roman still prided with it.

What has changed? There are alternatives. Many negative judgments about other races, religions are no more taken for granted, but rejected as prejudices.  Whereas ancient conquerors called themselves proudly conquerors, nowadays they prefer to call themselves liberators. Is this hypocritical?  Mainly yes. The establishment of many international institutions, above all of the United Nation embodies (at least seemingly) universality. We are no strangers, even less enemies, we are all just different nations of the common globe. .Is this  hypocritical?  Mainly, yes.

It is hypocritical firstly, because universalism means nothing for several cultures on earth, with the exception of science and technology.  Although almost all states (governments) on earth signed the universal declaration of the United Nations, the signature has or can have practical consequences only in liberal democracies .If  I mention  the contradiction or only the tension between universal values and the anthropological  basic stance  I have in mind only liberal democracies. Not just totalitarian states, but also autocracies, use prejudices against otherness as a weapon to secure popular support.

At the same time, the relation to 'otherness' becomes selective. National, racial, religious, sexual prejudices remain alive, although sometimes underground, if they support the anthropological basic stance, the conviction that 'we'' are the center of the universe, the feeling of security. In many other aspects, however, curiosity and interest in otherness gained momentum. China, black Africa, yoga, Buddhism, Krishna religion became fashionable. Restaurants   offer meals from all countries of the planet. In concert halls, in galleries in the television there is hardly 'we' or  'them'.

The scene changes entirely when the 'stranger' settles bodily among 'us'.

The tension between natural stance and universality has not the same significance in all liberal  democracies. At this point there is an essential difference between nation states and other modern states, a difference between Europe and the so called ' new world',

I speak about the present Europe, of states where 'nation' became the overarching identity, where all children learn  in schools or from their parents, how great, how superior their  nation  is. Where they are breastfed with legends of their national past, how their nation proved great how it was  betrayed.  Ethnic, political, cultural, traditional, sometimes even religious identities are fused. Dual identity is by definition excluded. In the new world one can be 'Irish American', 'African American' ,' Chinese American'  'Italian American' and the like, in Europe one cannot. The French is only French , the German only German, the Hungarian only Hungarian. In a nation state the 'stranger' could not have been integrated without assimilation . Assimilation requires the total de identification with the host nation, the abandonment  of the traditional culture, religion, dressing code, legends, past of the migrants. Whoever fails to assimilate remains a pariah. Contrary to the 'new world', political emancipation, the main aspect of integration, means almost nothing in a nation state.

The exclusive character of nation states is best exemplified by the story of European Jews in the 19 and 20 century and the story of two world wars. Modern anti-Semitism (in contrast to earlier anti -Judaism) was the product of nation states. The transformation of nationalism into racism was not a mere accident, for ethnic nationalism contains an aspect of racism. I mentioned already that WW1 was an European war, the victory of nation states against internationalism and cosmopolitanism. Just as the fusion of ethnicity and race became the motivation  (from the German side at least) for WW2.

After the devastation of WW2 some European states drew the consequences of the dark side of nation states, with the establishment of the European Union. One should not belittle the significance of this grand design. The member states of the Union are committed never even initiate a war against each other. Yet, until now, no European identity feeling has a similar strength or significance as the national identities of member states. If I asked a child in any country of the Union: 'what does it mean to you to be a European? 'I doubt that many will able to answer the question or even to understand it. The problem is not the conflicts of interests, but the conflicts of the meaning or significance of belonging, the problem with the general , if not even universal identity and legitimacy.

Still, Europeans are no more 'strangers' for other Europeans. A Frenchman is no stranger for a German, a Slovakian not for a Hungarian. Nationalist ideology, national myths and legends are still mobilizing  frustrated populations,  the more frustrated they are, the more they do it.  Yet, the significant stranger is no more the other European, but the migrant. The migrants are the strangers who arrive to our midst from who knows where, have different customs, religions, different traditions, legends, different view of true and false. They are terrorists, occupy our land and destroy it entirely. The danger inherent in nation states presents itself again. The stranger should either assimilate or entirely disappear.

On the one hand, Europe does not reproduce its population, thus it needs migrants. Europeans killed in  no more than 60 years hundred million Europeans  only. Not just children, parents, grandparents great-grandparents  are missing, The sins of the fathers and grandfathers should be repaid.

On the other hand:  Europeans are ready to accept only migrants, if at all, only on the condition that they assimilate. Not to Europe (Europe has no common traditional cultural memory, no common language) but to one or the other nation of a nation state.

Refugees  from  war ridden places of Asia or  Africa ,make now the universal claim: 'you, Europeans invented, that all men are  born equally free, thus we are like you. As a result you should treat us as equal human beings and let us live with you in your peaceful and abundant   little continent'..Europeans answer: 'true, all men are born equally free and we are all alike, but most people should stay where they are .We worked for our riches that is anyhow fragile, since we also have our poor population to feed. We have right to our land and we decide who can settle here. If one has a house, one has house rules. Even close relatives who are our guests for Christmas need to keep with the house rules.' The stranger asks: 'do you need establish house rules  before running into a burning  house to save people from death? If not, why don't you let refugees enter you home without conditions?' The European answers:' we would take refugees without conditions and let them stay in refugee camps until it is safe for them to return.  But also they should respect some rules. 'The same house rules? or other rules? What kind of rules are the house rules?'

If I were an American, I would answer: 'the house rules are the laws of the state. Everyone should obey the laws of the state, whether they prescribe your behavior towards others ,or to one of your own  kin, including your wife and children'   'This would be acceptable', answered the stranger, 'but in following some rules of our religion we cannot honor always  the laws of the state'.'Sorry, says the American, ' in this case I would not let you settle in my house'. Yet I( am not an American, I am an European a citizen of a nations state.. In our nation states there are far more house rules, than in the new world.  You have to learn the language of the state,  the tradition of the nation, follow their customs, their way of private and public behavior, moreover, you have to consider yourself a member of the nation.'  'And what if I do not?''  'You will be an outcast, will receive no decent job, your children will be excluded from the channels of upwards mobility'.'You ask too much from us '  protests the stranger. 'Yes, I know, but you must understand that we have also our tradition. We referred to ourselves for a longtime as to the Caucasians against the colored ones, and this type of racism motivates some of our compatriots, unfortunately, even now. We considered ourselves the Christian continent, and it is not easy to abandon this tradition. We considered ourselves progressive people, not just in hi tech, but also in being liberal democrats in several aspects of daily life ''. 'You are very strange people' remarks the stranger.

The past cannot be entirely neglected, although it can be a burden.  At least one can rely on alternative European traditions. The Bible commands that we should not hurt, not humiliate, not enslave the stranger even leave them a part of our livelihood.  Or, as Hamlet says 'Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity…Take them in'.

There are developments which become unavoidable .It is better to face unavoidable developments, than to sidestep them.

The flow of refugees and migrants to Europe is not a temporary occurrence, but unavoidable. It is only partly due to wars, mass murder and cruelty in the homelands of the refugees, since wars, mass murder, famine and cruelty are as old as the human race. The development  is unavoidable, because  is  mainly due to modernity in  general, to the globalization of technology, of  mass media, to the uninhibited flow of information in particular. All of these are European and American products. If you liked the world clock moving in your favorite direction, you cannot move it back even if you wished it.  Do you wish it?

It would be healthy if  the house rules of nation states could get closer to the house rules of the new world.: 'Do what your tradition dictates as long as you do not limit the freedom of others ,neither our freedom , nor of anyone' freedom among  your people'. Assimilation would  still remain a possibility, an option, yet not the obligatory condition of integration. 

One could still imagine the accommodation of  the anthropological basic stance to universalism.  Not without tension,  yet all the same.

I know that this is an overoptimistic position. But if one bets it is better to bet on the optimal outcome.

This might happen, even if slowly, if the Union would really take up the challenge.



17 Novembre 2015

Agnes Heller, prestigiosa filosofa ungherese allieva di György Lukàcs, ha tenuto in Casa della Cultura una lectio magistralis dal titolo:

'I nazionalismi minacciano l'Europa? ' (lunedì 16 novembre 2015)