G.M. Tamas a fost intervievat de Jacobin Magazine.
For the past five years, Hungary has been governed by Fidesz, a right-wing nationalist party. Fidesz, led by Viktór Orbán, has held a two-thirds majority, allowing it to modify the constitution and other major laws, and exercise control over major media outlets.
However, there were a series of scandals last year, as well as a series of major protests, that call into question its popular support. In February, the party lost its supermajority, leaving the political future of the country uncertain. Fidesz’s competitors are the Hungarian Socialist Party, which despite its name is neoliberal and pro-free market in orientation, and Jobbik, an extreme-right organization that many commentators view as the successor to fascist formations.
G. M. Tamás is the most prominent Hungarian left-wing public intellectual. After participating in the Hungarian Parliament as a representative of the liberal Free Democratic Alliance from 1989–94, he embraced Marxism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. His essays include “On Post-Fascism” and “Telling the Truth about Class.”
He presently teaches in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Central European University. He was interviewed for Jacobin by Andrew Ryder, a visiting lecturer of gender studies at the same university.
In “Telling the Truth About Class,” you describe the dissolution of the Rousseauian notion of the people, and argue that this can only be replaced by a more rigorously Marxist notion of class. However, movements worldwide that oppose mainstream capitalist institutions and policies often appear to take recourse to nationalism or other formulations of the popular. What are your thoughts on the term “populism”?
This is caused by two main factors. “Class” has been identified in the modern tradition with “class as a political subject.” In Central Europe a hundred and twenty years ago, “socialism” meant in the press, simply, “the proletariat, the working class,” and vice versa.
The workers’ movement was internationalist, as it was also opposed to property, to the state, to the family, to the Church, to the army, to corrective justice, and so on in the revolutionary manner. The tone of the most humdrum trade union meeting then would astonish the boldest ultra-left vanguard groupuscule today.
The movement was destroyed by social democracy and Stalinism, precisely because they have abandoned the idea of communism and created two versions of planned state capitalism, quite egalitarian and plebeian, and have weakened or obliterated altogether the political class rule of the old bourgeoisie, but did not (or could not do) anything about the separation of the means of production (means of subsistence) from the producers. Commodity production and wage labor continued unabated.
The official communist parties had become nationalist already in the Popular Front period (in the 1930s) and remained so until the discomfiture of the traditional left in 1989. The proletariat exists, as it were, “objectively,” but it has vanished “subjectively” — that is, politically.
Second, cross-class solidarity against hegemonic powers is nothing new, it has always been implicit in revolutions (even October was in part a peasant jacquerie and an anti-war uprising — no pure workers’ commune — and it was consolidated after a brief war against Western interventionist armies) and especially in anti-imperialist struggles.
“Populism,” particularly its egalitarian, “left” variety, is nothing else but an alliance of different classes and groups against hegemonic elites or powers perceived as such, and I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world — on the contrary.
But this, too, shows that we haven’t leapt over the threshold of “socialist revolution” yet. These movements are aiming at economic and social equality, at an equality of dignity, at true popular sovereignty, at national independence, things traditionally believed by Marxists to be bourgeois in character, as they are not addressing the substance, the deep structure of capitalism.
An authentic bourgeois democracy — if there is such — could cure the ills which populists are taking exception to. And it might. We should support, critically and selectively, such movements, as we are on the side of the oppressed, but it would be a great mistake to believe that they have much to do with socialism. We are supposed to be internationalist, not anti-Western, even if the nationalism of the downtrodden is morally superior to the chauvinism of the rich.
You have distinguished yourself as a vocal supporter of Syriza. How do you view the controversy regarding some of their more pragmatic decisions? For example, their governing coalition with the Independent Greeks (ANEL), and their apparent willingness to advocate for Russian interests.
Well, exactly. The Syriza people, learned Marxists all, did not (or could not) envisage the demolition of capitalism to begin with. This is a very noble and very courageous attempt to improve the material circumstances of the working classes, of the unemployed, and of the miserable underclass through moderate reforms which — in this profoundly reactionary period — appear as unspeakably radical to mainstream opinion. (They are rather less radical then Roosevelt’s New Deal had been. But Roosevelt, too, was called a communist back then by his opponents.)
I have criticized Syriza for their choice of a coalition partner, but we must understand that they had to have an ally who was reliable in their conflict with the European Union. (I don’t think that their fling with Russia is very important — it’s no more than a little tactical blackmail).
Their politics is, if I may say so, Jacobin. It is a combination of classical republicanism — strict political equality (with more power to the lower classes than they had before) — and of social egalitarianism. This means that “the people” reappears in the foreground like in the eighteenth century.
But of course this would also mean “equality between nations,” “friendship between peoples,” and “world peace”— distinctly unfashionable sayings, but implicit in so-called progressive thinking from the Enlightenment to the anti-imperialist thrust of the October Revolution to “the Sixties” and beyond.
The whipped-up antipathy towards “lazy Greeks” and immigrants or towards “authoritarian Russians” or “bigoted Muslims” may create a sense of belonging and togetherness that makes it easier to back the system — as it appears that one’s wellbeing is threatened by outsiders and not by class society. It’s an old old story, but it works a treat.
In such circumstances, people tend to forget that the outsourcing of Western industries to Eastern Europe — capital chasing lower wages (and migrant workers chasing higher ones) — which makes Western workers angry that their Eastern counterparts are stealing their jobs and Eastern workers even angrier because they have to perform the same work for half the Western salary, is detrimental to all and that they should demand a common European minimum wage (meaning of course real wages) instead.
The internationalism of capital is not countered by an internationalism of labour; there you have the reason for “populism” in a nutshell. Bourgeois egalitarianism stops at the boundaries of the nation-states, but capital doesn’t. This is why Western and Central European social democracy won’t support Syriza.
What are the prospects for a revival of the revolutionary left in Eastern European post-socialist countries? Are movements in Hungary, for example, likely to take inspiration from Greece?
Those prospects are nil, and there are no such movements, nor are they likely to materialize any time soon. The underlying causes are numerous, subtle, and usually ignored. I shall name only one of them.
One must understand that the post-Stalinist phase (or post-1956: this was the year of the Twentieth Congress of the PCUS with Krushchev’s “secret speech” unmasking Stalin’s terror, and the year of the Hungarian revolution) of planned state capitalism was a version of the welfare state.
With rising living standards, full employment, enormous construction of social housing (huge “council estates”), cheap public transport, expanding education, free health services, high culture for everybody, free popular media, easing censorship, increasingly permissive lifestyles, manipulative popular media, and the years of la grande bouffe, as people were eating well (and a lot) for the first time since the war.
“Class” discourse was interrupted, “peaceful coexistence” had replaced anticapitalist military readiness, “national unity” and popular entertainment from spectator sports to soupy pop music and operetta with deep cleavages had replaced proletarian dictatorship. (All this was resisted by Mao and Maoists.)
This is being remembered as “real socialism,” maybe with nostalgia — it was, after all, a safe, peaceful, consumerist half-paradise of an extremely conservative cast and with a genuine cultural respect for the plebeian, for the “working man” with his needs for anglers’ weekends and for the little car and for the soccer match — but definitely as a thing of the past.
In spite of spurious theories of “totalitarianism,” the economic and social policies of the “democratic” Western left and of post-Stalinist dictatorships were more similar than those of these latter and those of the right-wing military dictatorships in the Western hemisphere. The class truce of welfarism obtained in both systems of the Left, in spite of the considerable political differences and in spite of the undeniable and unpalatable legal and political facts of Eastern Bloc “soft tyrannies,” discretely and tactfully supported with credits by Western finance. (Can you recall Willy Brandt’s, Herbert Wehner’s, and Helmut Schmidt’s Ostpolitik?)
So, “socialism” — traditionally, always a thing of the radiant future — appears in this region as old and dead as Assyria and Babylon, and the satisfaction of needs (the hope for an end to misery and suffering) is linked to unfreedom in the popular imagination here. This would compromise both freedom and happiness, the first associated with chaos and poverty, the second with servility and humiliation.