Gaspar Miklos Tamas: Hungary's Boomerang Thinker
by John Feffer
Gaspar Miklos Tamas's political reversals can be chalked up to adaptations to changing circumstances. (Photo: Press SZO)
Hungarian philosopher and political theorist Gaspar Miklos Tamas started out on the Left, moved steadily rightward, and then made an abrupt U-turn.
Many intellectuals in East-Central Europe have traveled considerable ideological distances over the decades. The most common trajectory has been from the Left to the Right, as former Marxists were born again after 1989 as liberals, neo-liberals, neo-conservatives, just plain conservatives, and ideologues even further to the Right.
Janos Kis in Hungary, who critiqued Marxism from the Left in the 1970s, became a prominent liberal in Hungary in the 1980s and 1990s. Mihailo Markovic, a member of the group of neo-Marxist philosophers known as Praxis, became a leading nationalist supporter of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Former Polish United Workers' Party member Boleslav Tejkowski swung over to the far Right to create the Polish National Party, which has been infamous for its extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Gaspar Miklos Tamas, the Hungarian philosopher and political theorist who was born in Romania, also started out on the Left and moved steadily rightward. But unlike his intellectual cohort, he made an abrupt U-turn in the 21st century.
"I've had this strange trajectory that I once called in an interview a boomerang: from the Left to the Right and back again," he told me in an interview in Budapest in August 2013. "But I did not land exactly in the same place. I was much more of an anarchist in my youth. And, strangely enough for a East European, I became a Marxist for the first time only in 2000 — perhaps forced by circumstance but also by theoretical considerations."
I first met Tamas in the 1990s, visiting him in Budapest to explore the possibility of his contributing to a book of essays on European nationalism. He ushered me into his study, which was not only book-lined but filled with towers of books, each stack devoted to a different project. That, for me, became the archetypal image of a European intellectual.
What struck me on seeing him again was his adherence to what Tony Judt describes in the latest posthumous collection of his essays, When the Facts Change, as a willingness to alter one's understanding of reality when that reality evolves.
"First of all, very simply, I had to understand why the new dispensation was so hated by everyone in the region," Tamas told me. "How is it possible that the regime that my generation of intellectuals so hated and suffered so much at the hands of would be rehabilitated by public opinion and seen unapologetically as the better way by a majority of people, including people on the Right? Of course, I don't happen to agree with that opinion. On balance, we are still slightly better off. But I couldn't ignore that view."
The failure to thrive for so many people in the region was another fact he couldn't ignore. "Not only was the last quarter of a century of 'real socialism' the only version of the welfare state that the East had known, but it was perhaps the greatest explosion of East European culture in our history," he continued. "Also, it was the only period in which people could count on their lives getting a little better each year in economic and material terms. They also managed to achieve a little more liberty every year. So it was an era of progress. And there was also a feeling of security. And that's something we can't say about our own era."
We talked about "pure capitalism," Left movements like Occupy, identity politics, what's happening in Greece, and much more.
I don't know if you remember, but when we first met in 1993, you introduced me to a book that I didn't know about at the time. You told me it was a book that I had to read. It was called The Poverty of Liberalism. I dutifully went home and read it.
Robert Paul Wolff.
Exactly. It occurs to me that whenever people talk about meeting you and reading your writing, they talk about the political shift in your thinking. But at some level I see a continuity represented by that book. When I met you, you embraced a strong critique of liberalism. And you still have that critique.
Yes. At that time, of course I was intrigued as a liberal by an intelligent and persuasive critique. But now I am no longer a liberal, so of course my feelings are different, though I still like the book and I still like Robert Paul Wolff who is an undeservedly unknown author in America.
In a way, I've had this strange trajectory that I once called in an interview a boomerang: from the Left to the Right and back again. But I did not land exactly in the same place. I was much more of an anarchist in my youth. And, strangely enough for a East European, I became a Marxist for the first time only in 2000 — perhaps forced by circumstance but also by theoretical considerations.
And how would you describe those circumstances? Here in Hungary, in the region, or globally?
In the region and globally. First of all, very simply, I had to understand why the new dispensation was so hated by everyone in the region. How is it possible that the regime that my generation of intellectuals so hated and suffered so much at the hands of would be rehabilitated by public opinion and seen unapologetically as the better way by a majority of people, including people on the Right? Of course, I don't happen to agree with that opinion. On balance, we are still slightly better off. But I couldn't ignore that view.
Not only was the last quarter of a century of "real socialism" the only version of the welfare state that the East had known, but it was perhaps the greatest explosion of East European culture in our history. Also, it was the only period in which people could count on their lives getting a little better each year in economic and material terms. They also managed to achieve a little more liberty every year. So it was an era of progress. And there was also a feeling of security. And that's something we can't say about our own era.
Although I can't concur with all the feelings of my compatriots about the leadership of those years, one thing is certain: those were adults. Nobody can say of Kadar, of Ulbricht, even of Gierek that they were not grownups. They were serious, illusionless, mundane, prosaic, sometime cynical uncles. They certainly lacked creativity. But when people want to be safe, if anybody has to look after them, which we didn't necessarily like, they should be circumspect and reasonable. And we don't have that with this government. I could go on. Many democrats often overlook this instinct for security. I don't concur. I don't really want to be looked after in this way, or at least not much. But if it must take place it would be nice if it happened in a loving community. But next time.
Still, these expectations and demands of my fellow Hungarians, Romanians, and Poles are entirely reasonable. So, I had to think about this. I'm one of the founding fathers of this ill-starred republic. So, I should feel guilty. I'm responsible. Of course, I wasn't one of the top leaders. On the contrary. But I played my little part.
We'd heard about the anarchy of the market, and the unpredictable post-modern character of market activity, and egotism, and class rule, and the separation of high and low culture. Now this experience has been brought here to us. We have here people who are extremely selfish, whose conduct in this region exemplifies social Darwinism at its worst. If you meet some of these rapacious beasts, they would compare with mafiosos, people without any morals. Of course, the next generation of capitalists won't remember any of this: they'll be just regulation genuine capitalists.
But our own homegrown mafiosos, our bank managers and daylight robbers, even they still have nostalgia for more humane versions of society. And when they tell audiences of students in their early twenties that 1989 was, despite everything, an advance, the audiences laugh at them. The students were born after the changes, that's one thing.
The second thing is that telling people lies in such hard times has proven to be insufficient. Preaching liberty has not only proved to be theoretically difficult but morally unacceptable. People sacrificed their best years to this utopia. Many of those in the system were certainly sincere, meant well, and all that. But that's no excuse.
When people in the national press have complained that some important section of East European public opinion after 1989 was "undemocratic," it was just not right. We should take into consideration that this is not 1929 Berlin. This is not a generation of people who want to conquer and who are prepared to triumph against the lesser tribes. No, these are disenchanted, impoverished, desperate people who are clutching at straws and are meanwhile saying nasty things. Without any doubt, this frightens me too, since they are probably preparing to kill me first! But we are members of the same community, so I do understand them. They think that they are being punished for being what they are. But first of all they are not being punished. Things are happening to them because they happen to be in a place where the welfare state has denied them things in a particularly radical way. Strangely enough, more of the social state as it's called in Europe remains in the West than remains in the East.
I have an essay called "Capitalism: Pure and Simple" from 10 years ago in which I try to explain why our capitalism is so uncaged. We are the purists. In the West, especially but not exclusively in Western Europe, capitalism is not uncaged. On its right there's a tradition — the Church tradition, conservative high culture, and this and that — that provides some kind of resistance. And on the left, trade unions still exist although they're weak at the moment. But here, we have no resistance. There's no ancien regime, no Left, no Communist or socialist movement. The whole horizon is filled with capitalism. There's nothing else.
The field of battle is empty. They came with the troops and there's no one to oppose them.
Precisely. It was thus prepared by the late state socialist regime. They were of course modernizing and secularizing, and they wouldn't allow a workers' movement. Especially near the end it was a very rational conservative regime that repudiated its own socialist history.
So, if an American wants to experience pure capitalism, they should leave Chicago and come to Budapest. No local politician in Illinois would be allowed to say the things that any Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian politician says: "Oh, you have nothing to eat? Well, you should be more enterprising!" Try to say that in Chicago and you won't get reelected. They might think that…
You could say that in the economics department of the University of Chicago.
Yes, but that's all. Not on the streets. You can say it, but they won't reelect you.
But this is one of the reasons that I'm trying to contribute to creating a new Central European Left. Who will resist the pure market society in Eastern Europe except the Left? I don't think that this market society can become popular. But the forces that will oppose it have not yet become visible. They are invisible, marginal. Who had even heard of Lenin in 1906?
The rhetoric coming out of the Fidesz government at the moment seems quite conflicted on this. You can find some echoes of the earlier neoliberal vision of Fidesz. On the other hand, and this could just be for political and not for ideological reasons, now you hear as well anti-IMF rhetoric, the threat to close the IMF office and pay back the loans, the demonizing of international capital as a raid against the Hungarian nation. It would seem as if the Fidesz government would like to have its cake and eat it too: to be both against international capital but impose some version of market capitalism simultaneously but a Hungarian version.
Of course the government would never talk about "international capitalism." But it does have characteristics that are neo-Marxist. They are mostly concentrating on domestic circulation, credit, and investment to give the impression that this is the real capital, the real economy, and they maintain a suspicion against foreign capital and foreign investment. Actually, this point of view is comparable to that held by millions today who claim to be on the Left, like Occupy and the indignados and the anti-globalization movement. These positions are echoed unknowingly, because they are not so well-educated, by those on the Right. Now these positions are perfectly consistent with the Christian social antipathy toward the market. These representatives of a conservative version of capitalism don't take the neo-liberal position, which they think is perpetrated by Communists and socialists.
These conservatives are nationalists, of course. They want the Hungarian state to control the domestic economy. So what do they do? They put an end to the IMF in Hungary, And they want instead to borrow more extensively from national markets. They are actually exacting sacrifices from the Hungarian population in order to get rid of the market fundamentalism of the IMF even as they are proceeding in a market fundamentalist action by borrowing from the market and not the institution. Okay, it's a self-contradiction, but so is much of contemporary politics. In a way it's a more serious pro-market fundamentalism than anybody else because they are using bonds instead of institutional credit. But they are sincere nationalists and they want the state treasury to be basically controlled. They are also traditional right-wingers in having an almost exclusively middle-class policy.
It reflects the perspective of the grand bourgeoisie, which in our case is mostly global in its views. As it always was. Vienna then: New York and London now. It also hates the laissez-faire and adores everything connected to the nation. I mean, what's new? This is 1931 all over again. This combination may sound unusual. But nothing is more commonplace than what see today in Central and Eastern Europe. Also, it's everywhere.
Looking at this situation of what we might call the primitive accumulation of capital — the corruption, the Mafioso style — a Keynesian might say that this is a stage perhaps society that will go through before it --
In 1990 was the great moment of privatization when of course the values became murky. But look at what the propertied classes are resisting now? International corporations! They say, "they're all mafias." But the role these corporations have played is exaggerated, even in Russia, where domestic capital is more important. Of course these corporations were colorful. But were the railway companies in late 19th century America so much more well-regulated and honest? No, they were crooks too.
But neither then nor today are these problems decided. And the great animosity against the profiteers of the first hour, well, that's all dissipated.
I talked with a variety of different people who call themselves the new Left or some form of Left here in Hungary, mostly young.
Much less here than in other countries. Hungary is a black hole in this regard. There's much more in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Poland.
So why not here? Especially in Budapest where there is such a long tradition of serious Left culture?
All dissent here was monopolized by the Liberals. We had the most serious liberal movement in the whole of Eastern Europe. This success was damaging. The Liberal Party had almost two million votes. All energy went into that and was molded by that. Even compared to the most Western countries like Bohemia and Moravia, we were more pronouncedly liberal here. That's one thing.
Another is that the people who held critical Marxist Left positions in the 1960s and 1970s have made the transition to non-Marxist democrats. We had fantastic non-Party Left authors who wrote their best in the 1970s, and now they're repudiating all of that. Janos Kis wouldn't have his Marxist writings from those days republished …
I interviewed him right over there. He barely wanted to talk about anything much less those days.
He thinks my turn to the Left is crazy. He won't talk to me. He thinks, "He talks about Marx? How dare he?"
He would say that the progression that he made was the natural progression. But what you have done is contra natura, so to speak. From my interviews, it seems that Krytyka Polityczna in Poland is the strongest organization.
Everywhere else it seems just small groups of people -- Critic Attac in Romania, something similar in Bulgaria. It's perhaps more organized in Croatia or Serbia.
And they publish a lot of things that I write, perhaps more than what I get published in Hungary. A lot of things I write here in English in Hungary are translated into Romanian or Serbo-Croatian. But they're not published here in Hungary.
A lot of people come here to the Central European University to study critical theory.
The first course in that subject at CEU is given by me, in fact, from this autumn.
Well, there you go. So, people from all over the region are coming to Budapest for this grounding in critical theory and then they go back to their countries, or perhaps they go to London. But none of it remains here in an instrumental sense, to become a proto-party or a movement or some institutional form.
Not in Hungary. But probably in Poland, in Ukraine, in Russia, in the Balkans. Before, I went to conferences in Paris and London. And now I'm going to Kiev. And I'll be going to conferences in Belgrade, Zagreb. I don't want to boast but only to explain. I'm an author in demand in these places, but not here. Last week, I approached the editors of an influential cultural website to publish a small article, just a review of a periodical, a collection by young Marxists in Serbia that is appearing for the first time in Hungary. I just want to write a few lines about it. And they're still debating this! This website emblazons me on the homepage! I mean, I'm not a stranger to them.
I've begun writing again in Romanian. Well, not again: I never did. I lived in Romania for 30 years, but as a Hungarian I didn't have the occasion or the will to write in Romanian since I was writing in Hungarian. Thirty-five years after I've left, and I've started writing in Romanian, which I thought I'd forgotten. Because I have a public there, to which I have to react to. I may make a few grammatical mistakes. It was never my mother tongue, and it's been a long time. But there's no problem.
Here in Hungary, I can write against the government. I can criticize. But to develop my positive ideas? Even if it's published, people will just say, "Such a noble soul, so strange nowadays. He wants equality -- oh, god, whatever happened to him?"
It will pass. It can't stay like this.
Many of the people that I talked to in the 1990s who considered themselves liberals, have gone to the Left. They might not be public figures or writing as much as you do, but many are very disenchanted. And out of a sense of personal responsibility for the role they played, they've been talking about these issues.
I'm quite aware of this, and I think it's quite normal.
The Left that is emerging here, do you think that it has taken on the character of other Lefts in Western Europe, or do you see the Left here, because it is coming out of very different tradition…
It has nothing to do with tradition. That's unknown. The tradition here is forgotten. It will be exhumed eventually in 100 years. Who are the stars here? Zizek, Bourdieu, Robert Castel. It's very Western. It has always been.
Think of my parents. Where did they look for inspiration? My mother: to Paris. All our friends in the 1950s, the dissatisfied old Communists, friends of my parents, all came out of the prisons and the camps. Their inspiration came from the Sorbonne, from Strasbourg. Poor Gabor Gaal, the great Marxist of Transylvania, looked to the Weimar Republic and that sort of thing.
I came from a closed-in society, a provincial town in Transylvania. I borrowed books from private libraries: Lukacs, Bloch. I read those old German books, with dark round pages from World War I, low-quality paper, 1918-1919 books. They were hardly legible because they were so dark. Those were the books we read. That's what we had.
I see two positions -- the older class-oriented position of the Left in Western Europe, and the newer identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s and afterwards.
I think that we are getting beyond that. For example, if you look at the German Left, they've gone beyond those dialectics. Everyone knows about the old bourgeoisie. They shouldn't die separately, they had to die together, and they did. Capital is out; labor is out. But look at where capital is now. Marx had no idea. He would have wept if he knew.
This is why there's a fantastic renaissance of Theodor Adorno. He was no great class theorist. He wouldn't have gone into the identity thing either.
We all know about this oppression, be it sexual, cultural, age, gender, regional, race. What's new? That's what oppression has been like for the last four millennia! You don't need identity politics to describe it.
It's not just the description, but also the points of leverage, for people who are organizing around these issues. The oppression has been there for four millennia, but there were new opportunities.
If you look at the US, there's little in the way of organizing around class. Where have the victories been? Gay rights.
We have reached a plateau. We won't get much further. You can already notice the embourgoisement of feminism, anti-racism, pro-gay rights. They are becoming established. That's the nature of success, there's nothing evil about that in itself. But society, in spite of the advances I'm rejoicing in, remains oppressive. So, the organizing changes, but the political form of the new Left has not been born yet. The old forms are obviously dead. There are no new Communist parties. Though I don't tremble any longer to pronounce those words. These are just traditional parties.
I wrote an essay about what the Communist Party means as a party, as a labor party, its duties and obligations. Thousands of people used to think about this. But whatever it once was, it's past. And there's no immediate culturally identified group that can be assigned "working class." You once could identify workers very easily by the way they walked, the way they dressed, by the way they talked. It was nothing obscure or elusive.
And how people organize to get more power and freedom remains to be seen. It's absolutely open. And this is what the first chapter in the history of the Left is about: men and women of the people are participating. We may think that the workers are gone. But that's never been the case, not even in the most rarefied anarchist circles. Workers were always there.
I was desperately offering my services to trade unions. They didn't come to me. I went to them. There's a difference. They didn't know who I was, I was just somebody on TV. Eventually, they figured out that they could use me. Also, I have a laptop computer from the trade union. I couldn't afford one.
Which trade union?
Liga. They did that to jog the leadership a bit. They're quite militant.
Do you see anything anywhere in the world that has a remote representation of the kind of organizing that might help produce this new Left?
Frankly no. I can see honest, good, and nice things being done, but certainly no imagination such as went into the organizing around the Bolshevik party, which was a novelty. We've seen such things subsequently in history. But that kind of innovation is lacking nowadays.
You know this very platitudinous essay, to be frank, of Richard Rorty's? That there won't be movements, just campaigns? Very postmodern. He was right! He's been proven right. This is what we have: campaigns. He had a sharp eye on that.
That could be called the postmodern condition.
Something like that, as much as I hate the term. He saw that. Look at what has happened with Seattle and the anti-globalization movement. It was around a few ideas, and it ran its course, and it disassembled on its own without a trace.
In the organization I work with, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, a number of the people were central to the organizing in Seattle. They argue that if 9/11 hadn't happened, the trajectory would have been very different. The organizing was there for a national demonstration planned for September 2001.
Well, that's nonsense. World War II was a bit larger event than 9/11, and the Communist Party still survived. Some of them still do! In China, for example.
You think it was the nature of the organizing that was problematic.
Yes. We've seen Occupy come and go. Already the indignados have stopped. And to a certain extent that may well be the case with the Arab Spring as well.
Of course, people don't dare to believe in an uprising of Islamicism. They don't dare to believe in Arabs. The Arabs are always supposed to be Europe's fanatics until the end of time. And now they are protesting for democracy? How can this happen among these obscurantists, these true believers?
I'll be giving a presentation on Islamophobia here in Budapest tomorrow.
It's very strong here. And you've probably noticed the return of anti-Semitism.
That raises an interesting question. One of the core values of political Islam is justice.
Every religion has as its core idea of justice. Tell me an exception. You won't find any.
Yes, that's true. It's political representation in Turkey, or the writing of Tariq Ramadan here in Europe. In some cases it has occupied the space that the Left had. In the same way that here in this region, there's going to be a choice: will it be the Left or the fascists that take up the call for justice? Outside this region, political Islam occupies that space.
Yes, it's the big Other. Still, we can't tolerate it. It challenges our modern consciousness.
I don't know if you followed what the Pope has said recently in recent days.
Yes. Now the Nepszabadsag newspaper has an interview with the Christian Democrats in Hungary. They're saying, "We're not a church, we're a political party. We have our own objectives." Huh? The Christian Democrats are saying, "We are good Catholics and therefore we are repudiating the Pope." They have to be even against the bloody Pope!
What do you think will happen to Fidesz here?
They will be reelected, and they will rot away.
From the inside?
Absolutely power corrupts absolutely. They will get fat and dumb.
I find this difficult to understand. On the one hand, you have these tremendous corruption scandals, involving cigarettes and --
Nobody cares. And they're right. This is not essential.
What about the failure of the economy to grow? The unemployment rate for 20-year olds is so high.
It's not in the media, so people don't know about it. And anyway it's the fault of international capital! And it's also the fault of the opposition. I won't say this publicly because I don't want them to lose even more than they're already going to lose.
I wrote a piece called "What Will Happen after the Election." Only the Socialist party will probably make into parliament. And they will again be the number two party. It's not as if people like the government. But they don't like the opposition and their bromides either. Nobody wants those bromides, not even the opposition. Even they can't muster any enthusiasm.
Last year, when it wasn't clear how this was going to go and it was very cloudy, I was invited to speak, me and Gordon Bajnai. The enthusiasm generated by yours truly was tremendous. I'm great when I'm in my stride, and I was expressing the general despair and revulsion toward the government. That enthusiasm was used by Bajnai, cynically, to present himself as a new savior. I'm not saying this to elevate myself. I'm just asking how was it possible to generate such enthusiasm then. I could show you the speech. This was my greatest. Although I've spoken on many occasions from 1988 to today, that was the best since 1988. It was well-received and for political reasons.
I said to the crowd, "I'm not saying that you're to blame, but you should never again accept or tolerate the politics of resentment." A lot of people just weren't going to show up at the polls. They'd just stay at home and curse. Like me. I didn't vote last time. Who for? Voting again for the lesser evil? Oh, that's boring. I'm not using the word "boring" in any privileged way. But it doesn't help. There are now powerful people who would say that if would be nice to have a change in government, and they're prepared to look for a replacement. They would welcome a change in government.
What could the opposition do in your opinion?
This one -- nothing!
Okay, what can an opposition do?
Something like that should be possible. It doesn't mean that I endorse everything that Syriza says or does. That project is still all about politics. But within that framework, it's the best we have.
And not marginal.
No. That has to do with the experience of the Greek tradition. It's the only country where Communists are comparable to, say, Protestants in Hungary, in this sense of someone saying: "it's not my denomination but it's certainly a respectable denomination." You wouldn't say in Hungary that Protestants are pigs. They're a respectable part of society. If in Greece you say that you're a radical leftist or a Communist, people there are not horrified. The Communists resisted against Hitler and against the Colonels. That's a respectable history. And it's unique. So, it's natural that people react that way.
Actually I had some extraordinary experiences in east Germany.
No, now with Die Linke. Talking to various people about it. In a way, Die Linke is like the CSU in Bavaria. It's a regional party, the regional party of east Germany. They know what's gone wrong, they're presenting their demands. It's one of the reasons they're popular. They're claiming a large part of the territory. They're not hiding their beliefs like others are doing. I am interested in Die Linka because it is eastern European in a very traditional way. That area was always a bastion of the Left -- Red Prussia, Red Thuringia, Red Saxony. The oldest political tradition there is in Germany that goes back to the 1840s.
People react to me in a very interesting way. It took a decade for people to realize that I've changed from that time to the radical left. It's a very strange combination. Some see me as the proverbial Judeo-Bolshevik. But I'm also from Transylvania, and the Hungarian nationalists love Transylvania. But that doesn't mean they love Transylvanians. Do you think that the Prussians wanted the Anschluss because they loved the Austrians?
Do the Serbs of Belgrade love the Serbs of Kosovo? Of course not. Has anyone accompanied you on this boomerang here in Hungary?
No. Just young people. Not all of my friends have distanced themselves from me. But they just smile at me. Like I'm an old romantic.
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Article: Courtesy Foreign Policy in Focus.
"Gaspar Miklos Tamas: Hungary's Boomerang Thinker"