Intellectuals stayed on the scene too long

When I was reading Martin M. Šimečka’s soul-searching essay “Intellectuals did not take the responsibility, so somebody else had to”, a German saying came to my mind, which I often heard from my mother. It goes, ‘Ihre Sorgen möcht’ ich haben’ (‘I would like to have their problems’).

Photo: WikimediaCommons/ Derzsi Elekes Andor: Metapolisz DVD line

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I think that in spite of all its flaws, Slovak political life is much healthier than what we have in Hungary. I am also envious of Milan and all those intellectuals who had the courage, virtue, and sheer luck to stand at the rail switches of history in 1989. Having missed that chance, there is no reason for me to feel remorse about letting the train of Hungarian democracy go off-track. Yet I am not happy about it.

Consequences of Gulash Communism

In 1989 Hungary was different from the rest of the region in several respects.

First, there was no clear dividing line between “Us” and “Them”, the oppressed citizens and the communist nomenklatura. On the contrary, the party-state leadership had a large background of ideologically non-engaged but loyal professionals and intellectuals, who decided whether to join the government apparatus, or remain, as it was termed back then, “out in the production”; or, for that matter, move closer to the dissident opposition.

Second, the majority might have been tired of the System (that is, the dictatorship, which had many consensual elements), but did not actually hate it. Average real income tripled between 1956 and 1989, and this development made an indelible imprint on the Hungarian political psyche. (By comparison, in 2010, the year of Fidesz’s overwhelming victory at the elections, average real income was below the 1989 level.) 1   Nowadays it is taken for granted that the communist government financed the improvement in living standards from huge Western loans, but there is no such simple correlation.

Real wages, on the other hand, declined from 1979, 2  but the upper two thirds of society found ways to overcompensate that loss: with the government’s active help or quiet connivance in black and grey market activities. Liberalizing measures like allowing regular travel to the West also sweetened the pill. So after the multiparty system became legal (de facto late 1988, de jure in the first months of 1989), the first polls showed that the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was by far the most popular of any group. It would have won 37% of the votes in July 1989, before the central European revolutions gathered momentum. 3  The main reason for the temporary shrinking of its successor, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), to 11% by the 1990 elections was the region’s revolutionary wave. ‘We can do it, let’s get rid of the commies.’ But it was a passing sentiment; MSZP returned to power in 1994 with an impressive  31%.

The Responsibility of the Scribes

Third, intellectuals having direct political influence was nothing new to Hungary. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that the greatest national poets were also political oracles, who could always fathom the right way to act against their oppressors. Gyula Illyés, who was the unofficial prince of the literary community during much of that period, once said that in Hungary writers usually took on the responsibilities of the Water Management Authority as well, meaning that in a country with an elitist political caste, it was the men of letters who were close to the real lives of the people, and able to help them. He was one of the leaders of the National Peasant Party, which in 1948 succumbed to the Stalinist Hungarian Workers’ Party, but had also delegated two novelists to the communist-dominated government: Péter Veres was Minister of Defense, while József Darvas was Minister of the Construction Industry (later education, and then culture). Writers also played a crucial role in the 1956 revolution.

Fourth, while non-communist intellectuals did not oppose the system unanimously, their various groups were busy fighting each other. The NPP grew out of of the népi school of writers and sociologists, which was founded in the early 1930s (népi means ‘belonging to the people’; in this context, to the peasantry). Originally their most vocal opponents were the urbánus (‘city-dweller’) intellectuals, a group of mostly Jewish, liberal-to-moderate socialist authors.

After 1945 most of the original urbánus were forced into exile, while the népi remained a close-knit group with some political manoeuvring space even under the dictatorship. Over the years, “népi v. urbánus” became a partly vulgar, partly euphemistic code for “Gentile v. Jewish,” as members of Hungary’s once-strong Jewish middle class, decimated by the Holocaust, still held important cultural and academic positions; and there was quiet competition for positions of cultural power between the népi intellectuals and those of Jewish origin. I call this bracketing vulgar because by the 1980s the urbánus features that had once been considered Jewish-like, spread well beyond the remnants of the Hungarian Jewry, which was highly assimilated anyway. Such features were Western orientation in everyday culture, progressivism as opposed to traditionalism, and a kind of business-minded individualism as opposed to a disciplined subordination to collective or national interests.

Tribal wars

The hard political core of the urbánus camp, however, still came largely from a Jewish background. The members of the Democratic Opposition were straightforward dissidents, publishing samizdat, targeted by State Security surveillance, and this could have resulted in a surge of anti-Semitism (the secret police were not immune from that prejudice, and leaned toward the népi side anyway), had the government not alienated the népi camp in 1983. Soon after Illyés’s funeral, the cultural bureaucrats banned his acknowledged successor Sándor Csoóri from publication, sanctioning him for the foreword he wrote in Slovakian Hungaran dissident Miklós Duray’s book (published in the United States). It was a bold statement, surpassing anything the Democratic Opposition had offered until then; Csoóri claimed that the the ethnic oppression of the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia was ultimately due to the lack of political pluralism, private property, and religious freedoms. He also broke the taboo of ‘not questioning our alliance system.’ The Hungarian communists were at odds with the Romanian government, and they allowed some leeway for intellectuals to criticize both Ceausescu’s Stalinist policies and oppression of the ethnic Hungarians, as it served the legitimizing propaganda of Kádárism quite well. There were, on the other hand, no political differences with Czechoslovakia, and even mentioning the possibility of ethnic oppression or forced assimilation there amounted to a serious political offence.

During the four years that followed, there was a tentative alliance between the népi group and the Democratic Opposition. It was broken, however, in 1987, when Imre Pozsgay, a popular reform-minded communist politician, felt the winds of change, and thought that support from the népi could help him to achieve more power within the party-state. This was how Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. Originally a discussion circle (or network of circles) with a distinct népi majority, it was the first legal non-communist organization since 1956. At the time of its inception it was uncomprimisingly leftist; by the 1990 elections it had developed into a centre-right political party, and the leading force of the first democratically elected governing coalition, the Antall Government.

The second largest party and the leading force of the parliamentary opposition was the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), a direct descendant of the Democratic Opposition. Both sides were horrified by the election results. Hardcore SZDSZ people saw MDF as a bunch of third-way enthusiasts incapable of rational thinking with no grasp of the economy at all, concentrating on meaningless symbolic issues instead. Hardcore MDF people saw SZDSZ simply as a Jewish party, menacingly succesful at a kind of “reverse assimilation,” as Csoóri put it some months after the elections: ‘the liberal Hungarian Jewry wishes to assimilate the Hungarians in thought and style.’ That passage in the essay Daytime Moon was enough for Imre Kertész, our future Nobel laureate, to leave the Hungarian Writers Union.

Csoóri’s horror came from that fact that while Hungarian Jewry comprised only 0.8% of the population, SZDSZ and the smaller (then) liberal party, Fidesz received some 30% of the votes; urban, non-nationalistic liberalism has traditionally been identified as Jewish ideology on the nationalist side. This had nothing to do with Nazism; it was a home-grown prejudice which had dominated political life between the disaster of the Trianon peace treaty in 1920 and the beginning of the Stalinist Era in 1948-49. Foreign observers tend to ignore or underestimate the direct and indirect influence of the Trianon trauma 4  on Hungarian political thinking. Whether you “grieve Trianon” or not is a more important political dividing line in Hungary than universal Right/Left issues. As a reaction to the shock, in the 1920s the large majority of the ruling elite blamed Bolshevism and even more the liberalism of the previous era for the tragedy, as if it were a punishment for straying from ethnocentric nationalism – that is, for having let emancipated Jews weaken traditional, pure “Hungarianness”. Both Bolshevism and liberalism were commonly identified with Jews in everyday talk and in official reports.

Although the chairman of MDF, Prime Minister József Antall (a historian by profession) was an impeccable conservative democrat, many activists of SZDSZ could not forgive him the alliance he made with some well-known anti-Semites. On the other hand, they never missed a chance to assert their own moral and intellectual superiority; many of them had been courageous dissidents with a sound training in economics and other social sciences, but it did not raise their popularity anyway, and was widely regarded as haughtiness causing their eventual collapse in 2009.


Thus began a long series of battles, where the political Left (in this case SZDSZ and its enemy-turned-ally MSZP, which was rapidly gaining strength) framed itself as a virtuous anti-fascist force with the mission of halting the growth of fascism; while the political Right (I suspect under considerable ex-state security influence) tended to frame SZDSZ as the successors of the mostly Jewish sectarian communists of the post World War I period and the Stalinist Era. Unlike in Slovakia, it was the Right which became more and more characterized by vulgar nationalism, and the Left professed Western values, including a market orientation, which rank-and-file right-wingers considered ‘alien from Hungarianness’.

So, as opposed to what happened in Slovakia, it was not too soon that intellectuals withdrew from politics, but too late. The preoccupations and mutual grievances of intellectual groups and their struggles for cultural positions, for the very right to ‘save the Hungarian soul’ (in their interpretation, to save the country from losing its Hungarian identity on the one hand, or falling prey to nationalist or even proto-fascist zealots on the other) defined the political discourse during the formative years of what we call the Third Republic, the political system that existed from 1989 to 2010. I would not say it was the problem, but it was a very serious problem. This proxy war hid from view all tasks that should have been really important, such as restructuring of the economy; sincere lustration; strengthening the autonomous middle class that was not dependent on the state; providing an adequate education to the children of the poor (many of them Roma), which would ensure their entry into the labour market, and so on. It hid from view the numerous flaws in the system of political institutions; a system with many non-democratic guarantees that over-stabilized any elected government on the one hand, and made them weak through a multitude of obligatory consensual procedures on the other. It was devised in 1989 for a short transitory period, but remained permanent because fighters in the tribal war never took pains to reach a compromise that would have been necessary for writing a permanent democratic constitution; and by 2010 the Third Republic brought about its own demise.

Personal History

Where was my place in all this? At the time I was a cultural magazine editor and a literary translator. As an avowed Westernizer I could not join the népi; and I was too individualistic in my political and cultural tastes to join the urbánus. I chose the minuscule, centrist Hungarian Liberal Party in 1989, and became its campaign manager in 1990. It was a very strange group; there were famous lawyers, who hated communism; a Slavist friend, who later became a Foreign Ministry official under right-wing governments; a popular comic actor, who turned out to be a perfect, mild-mannered gentleman with an excellent home library (later it also turned out that he was also a police informer); and a couple of economists from a (nominally still communist) government office, who criticized SZDSZ’s economic program (which was at the time mildly socially democratic rather than neoliberal) for ‘covering everything with a kind of Jewish glaze.’

One of our candidates for Parliament in 1990 was Judith Gyenes, the widow of Pál Maléter, the foremost military hero of the 1956 revolution. After the execution of her husband she could not (was not allowed to) find a steady job until József Antall employed her in the Museum of Medical History. In the mixed election system a portion of representatives were to be elected in individual constituencies, and they had to collect 750 nomination slips to enter the competition. When this process started, there was a public political debate in the constituency, where my then-favorite politician from SZDSZ, whom I still respect as maybe the best political observer in Hungary, said that ‘giving your slip to Judith Gyenes is like throwing it to the dustbin.’  We could not collect the required number and maybe it was our own fault. Eventually the constituency was won by MDF’s candidate Gyula Zacsek, an economist, who made his name with a campaign against wholesale trade in agricultural produce, founding a network of MDF markets, where farmers could sell fruit, vegetables and even meat directly to urban customers (without VAT, or hygienic or quality control, but literally dirt cheap). He was expelled from that party in 1993 for his extremist views, and founded an anti-Semitic fringe party, which soon disappeared. Viktor Orbán of Fidesz came in second, beating Miklós Szabó of SZDSZ to the third place (there were only a couple of such cases out of the 176 individual constituencies.) Szabó was a clever, erudite and courageous dissident historian, teaching at the opposition’s Flying University; he was one of the few Hungarians to sign a declaration of solidarity with Charta 77 in 1978, and a public intellectual who was notably free of prejudices in regards to the opposite side.

The Hungarian Liberal Party quietly passed away later that year. I quit politics, and very rarely experimented with political journalism until 2007, when the Third Republic began to show visible signs of collapse. It is not a decent thing to say, but at last I felt some political satisfation; I had been right after all. In 1989-90 the two largest opposition parties, MDF and SZDSZ, which were formed around close-knit intellectual groups, drew a line, and did not let any party or aspiring politician whom they did not consider “serious”, to enter the political scene, so that they would not “weaken the opposition” in their great joint anti-communist fight. They fought and lost. Post-communist MSZP came back with a vengeance. By 2006 both MDF and SZDSZ had shrunk to the proximity of the 5% paliamentary threshold, but then later disappeared altogether. No-one can tell what the political scene would look like today if the founding fathers had not made the condition for entering it a kind of allegiance to one intellectual tribe or the other. It is certain, however, that an enormous amount of talent and good intention has been wasted. And the ultimate winner is Orbán’s Fidesz, a party whose elite never thought that intellectual allegiances were more important than the sheer will for power.


  1.  Hungarian Central Statistical Office:  Income and consumption of households (1960 – 2013).
  2.  Andorka Rudolf & Harcsa István: The household income in Social report 1990.
  3.  Magyarország politikai évkönyve [Hungary’s Political Yearbook] 1990, 463. Aula-OMIKK, Budapest, 1990. The polls were conducted by the Hungarian Institute for Public Opinion Research.
  4.  The transcript of a round-table Visegrád Group disscussion on the Trianon trauma, organized by RozRazil in 2006.
János Széky

János Széky

is a literary translator, publicist and an editor at Élet és Irodalom ("Life and Literature"), a weekly Hungarian newspaper about literature and politics.