Eastern Europe’s left is in a lamentable condition, according to Hungarian historian Tamás Krausz; however, critical thinking isn’t.
Q: In an interview with nd in autumn 1997, you gave a critical analysis of the situation of the left in Hungary and Eastern Europe. How do you perceive the situation today, more than 25 years after the political changes in Eastern Europe.
A: Since the change of political systems in 1989/1991, the political regimes in Hungary and other Eastern European countries have undergone several metamorphoses. As we predicted, the overall tendency has been the emergence of authoritarian political systems.
For a long time, the sphere of civil society has been swallowed up by the sphere of politics, but this cannot just be regarded as an achievement of the nationalistic and authoritarian political systems. The organisations that had emerged during the period of transition and immediately afterwards, and which had seen themselves as engines of social movements, have perished, so that today only the organisations of the political right display some of the characteristics of social movements. Those sectors of civil society that are critical of the political system and are holding on, in principle, to the long-term aim of societal counter-power, are very weak and not in a position to unite their forces.
It is striking how insignificant and powerless the protest movements against the dictatorship of capital appear in Eastern Europe. To be sure, since the crumbling of the classical labour movement, no part of Western Europe has seen the emergence on the historical stage of an anti-systemic, anti-capitalist movement of labouring people either, and the radical decline in trade union membership has occurred all over Europe. The International of Capital is functioning, that of the workers is not. This situation has been illustrated with particular clarity most recently by the issue of migration.
Q: What is new about the Orbán regime, and what’s the situation of the parliamentary opposition?
A: In 2010 the political right came to power with a two third majority, and in addition 20% of members of parliament belong to the party of the extreme right, Jobbik (meaning both “the ones to the right” and “the better ones”); which can be regarded as an opposition on the side of the government. This election result, which can be attributed to a large extent to the blindly neoliberal policies of the previous minister president, the parvenu Ferenc Gyurcsány, has brought the “Polish syndrome” to Hungary. The political right holds more than 80% of parliamentary seats. Today, in the year 2016, we can observe that Jobbik is trying to turn into a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In parliament, the party has turned away from its anti-Semitic rhetoric and is preparing for the upcoming elections of 2018. The Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt) and those two smaller parties that have split off from it, the party Together (Együtt) and the Democratic Coalition led by Gyurcsány (Demokratikus Koalició), are considering to include Jobbik into possible coalition constellations in order to stand a chance to put pressure on the current coalition of Fidesz and Christian Democrats under minister president Viktor Orbán.
Orbán’s secret does not consist merely of the fact that he has installed an authoritarian regime that uses nationalist-populist rhetoric to blame Brussels for Hungary’s problems. The secret of his Hungarian “triumphalism” consists of the fact that he has been able to acquire actual power. Through his politics of concentration of power, Orbán has managed to gain control of virtually all electronic media. With an arrogance reminiscent of Goebbels, he has set about an ideological reshaping of the entire Hungarian society, and it appears that indeed the majority of Hungarian society has turned into adherents of nationalistic and xenophobic policies. The corresponding political rhetoric is spreading throughout Europe. Orbán’s contribution to this is unmistakable. With the help of regular handing out of state assets), Orbán has managed to create a new “oligarcho-bourgeoisie” loyal to himself, and he has suffocated nearly every expression of political or social resistance; he has even de facto put an end to the right to strike. The new Hungarian constitution of 2010 marks the country’s definite break with the bourgeois democratic tradition. The political system of the post-1989 era has thus been closed definitely and hermetically to the left; it remains open to the right in the sense of restoration in the spirit of neo-Horthyism.
Q: What kind of resonance has Orbán’s refugee policy met with in Hungary?
A: For Orbán the refugee question has been very convenient, as it has allowed him to call upon “national self-protection” in order to complete his anti-globalist demagogy, which ideologically underpins his policy of concentration of power. He has presented the refugees as scapegoats, as the new enemy, blaming unemployment and criminality, terrorism and existential insecurity on them. With regard to scapegoating, Gypsies and Jews have been relegated to the background. Anti-communist rhetoric and ideological indoctrination are stronger than ever. According to opinion polls, 80% of the population is in support of Orbán’s anti-refugee policy. The regime is systematically concealing and obscuring the role of NATO in turning these people into exiles. With the help of the manipulative system, the working population are being intimidated and the entire society is being demoralised and refeudalised.
Q: You have repeatedly spoken of an alliance between “liberal Atlanticism” and the extreme right – what do you mean by this?
A: Since 2010 I have been emphasising that the Orbán regime cannot be defeated in the classical way of parliamentary elections. Only a social movement of the masses, a popular insurrection can chase out this regime. Hungarian Liberals and Neoliberals have refused to acknowledge this. Meanwhile, Western governments have come to an arrangement with Orbán, have practically rallied behind him, because in Hungary and most other Eastern European countries submission under Brussels’ diktat of austerity and reform is combined with a radical pro-Atlantic foreign policy. The USA have definitely established themselves militarily in Eastern Europe, steadily expanding their anti-Russian military bases and strategies. Meanwhile, it is being claimed that this serves the defense of democracy against the authoritarian Russian system. However, by acting in this way, the USA and NATO are providing legitimacy for the authoritarian systems in the region. Everywhere these authoritarian systems are determined by the relations of oligarchic capitalism. Russia’s economy and power system are being put under pressure and isolated militarily and economically, by the countries of the centre, and out of this motivation even the Ukrainian Pro-Nazi-Regime is being maintained.
Q: Is the attitude of the parliamentarian opposition responsible for the lack of a leftwing alternative in Eastern Europe?
The fact that the Hungarian opposition is even prepared to ally itself with the extreme right tells us a lot about its engagement for democracy and the sincerity of its desire for social progress. The opposition has no intention to change the fact that the system is closed off to the left and open to the right. In Eastern Europe, the forces for true progress within the conceptual and political framework of democracy have been exhausted, if they ever truly existed at all. After the changes of 1989, even until the mid-1990s, it was still possible to bang on about the East catching up with, or even overtaking, the West, but no-one buys into this kind of talk by the elites any more.
Even tobacconists in Hungary nowadays go by the name of “national sales outlet”. In Ukraine, the gang-like pro-Nazi regime has de facto been engaged in mass murder; in Latvia, there is public support for the glorification of the Waffen-SS; in Hungary a rogue Fidesz-politician named Lezsák has been demanding the erection of a public statue for the great anti-Semitic politician of the Horthy era, Pál Teleki. In our part of the world, the falsification of history on the basis of Russophobia and anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism and xenophobia is being celebrated.
Q: Against the background of this shocking account, could you give us some more detail about the state of civil society movements in Hungary?
A: Initially, the anti-systemic left in Hungary and Eastern Europe held great hopes in civil society movements as a new basis for anti-capitalist resistance. We remember well our original ideas, which we formulated in Budapest and Vienna, Moscow and Paris, Prague and Ljubljana. We believed that in opposition to both Stalinist and capitalist restоration, a social alternative could be developed, which would be based on the self-organisation of society, on civil society as a social counter-power. This was the concept of tertium datur, the third possibility.
In actual fact, in Hungary the anti-capitalist and anti-systemic organisations and networks are deeply divided among themselves. One can distinguish among three currents: the Hungarian United Left or Magyar Egyesült Baloldal (Mebal), which brings together groups such as Attac Hungary, Foundation Hungarian Social Forum, and small associations such as the workers’ leisure association of Franzensstadt, an area of Budapest. Most of its initiators and activists are Marxist intellectuals. As similar groups in Western Europe and Russia, this network does not, for now, concern itself with the founding of a political party, but focuses on social projects that are meant to serve the protection of the lower classes. The number of members and supporters should amount to a few hundred. In public statements, Mebal emphasises its rejection of the foundation of new political parties under current conditions, because it considers it impossible for the radical left to get anywhere close to parliamentary representation without significant financial means and infrastructure, and especially without widespread popular support.
The second significant current is the party Green Left (Zöld Baloldal). The Green Left is an association of the Hungarian Workers’ Party of 2006 (Magyarországi Munkáspárt 2006, member of the European Left) and the group Green Left. The party participated in the elections of 2010 and 2014, without however being able even to put together a list of candidates anywhere. Similarly, in the elections for the local councils, it has rarely managed to put forward its own candidates. In these cases the party calls upon its sympathisers to vote for either the Hungarian Workers’ Party or its breakaway, the Hungarian Workers’ Party of 2006.
The third camp in the anti-systemic left consists of anarchist and anarcho-communist groups, which are competing amongst each other. These groups attack both the state and any traditional form of political organisation. This camp embodies the idea of the left as political subculture. Happenings reported in the liberal press are more important to many of them than mass action. The representatives of this camp see themselves as anti-fascist and anti-racist.
All these groups are closely connected to those anti-capitalist traditions of the region, which, through the self-organisation of society want to disconnect themselves from capitalism. Those traditions can be traced back to the years of 1945-1945, and later Solidarnosc in Poland, to 1905, 1917 and 1989-1991 in Russia and the Soviet Union, to the self-organised workers’ councils and workers’ committees which strove for the socialisation of state property. Under the pressure of the neoliberal global order and the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe, however, it is hardly possible to powerfully reconnect to these radical experiments of civil society. Meanwhile even in 2016, 60 years after the insurrection of 1956, the Hungarian state expends great energy in disowning the memory of 1956. A propaganda campaign as has never been seen before, alongside mega-conferences at universities, are spreading the Fidesz-program of “national understanding” and the message of legitimising the current system. At the same time, since 1989 the tradition of the workers’ councils of 1956 is being either completely concealed or falsified. This serves as more evidence for the extreme weakness of the labour and trade union movement even 25 years later.
Q: Do you see a possibility that things could take a turn for the better from the perspective of the Left?
A: The key question is whether or not it is possible in today’s situation to build up “organised centres” of anti-capitalism. This is not about building a bureaucratic apparatus. The idea of a network-like organisation, which already appears in Lenin’s writings, has a certain genius to it, both in an ideological-theoretical and a practical-political sense, for it searches out the weak points of the capitalist system. If certain groups and movements today reject any form of organisation based on discipline, they fail to understand what Russian Social-Democrats already understood more than a century ago. Back then the political revolution – which in our days is no longer practicable – started out from such an “organised centre”. Today capitalist exploitation in Europe is organised in a different way, the crisis has a different structure; therefore, the “organised centres” also need to take on a different shape from those in Lenin’s time. A powerful anti-capitalist movement without a labour movement is impossible. In a situation in which capital and state effectively keep social movements away from the workplaces, comprehensive attempts at organisation involving the sphere of work would be of particular importance.
However, this is the most complicated problem. Today’s anti-systemic organisations do not even reach the young workers, and have not even given top priority to this. The capitalist organisation of labour has been fragmenting the organised resistance of the working class, and the consciousness of the working class is being dominated by the manipulative structures of the system.
Q: Can you see a political perspective in attempts by the left to draw upon nationalism?
A: With its hostility towards the EU and the Euro, national romanticism does not lead leftwards, but drives the entire region towards the type of national popularism embodied by Viktor Orbán. Compared to the EU, the national state does not exhibit any progressive features, but it rather obfuscates the struggle between different parts of the bourgeoisie, and for some on the left it replaces thoughts about how to transcend capitalism. Similarly, the romantic form of communism does not hold any adequate solution for those social experiments that aim for the global transcendence of capitalism. There is no perspective without widespread social resistance.
Without doubt, our task today is the creation of the preconditions for “organised centres”, and it would be a big mistake if we unduly simplified our analysis of the situation and ignored the diversity of social and political activism. The worst thing are the unnecessarily offensive arguments between different groups. In terms of political strategy, it is clear that the solution has to be painful to capital. The core of the matter consists in preventing the production of profit, and that means that one has to occupy work places rather than Wall Street. This is easily said but complicated in practice. Workers have to elect their own representatives, who have to centralise from the bottom up. We can learn from the history of revolutions and from the works of Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci and others how this may work.
Q: Is there anything you view fundamentally different from 20 years ago? Has the history of the past 20 years taught you anything?
A: I believe that I have a more complex view of the history of Eastern European state socialism and of the period of transition than in 1989. In the spirit of humanism I say today as I did then that no apologetic of the capitalist system is acceptable, but I have learned to better understand how deeply the capitalist system is rooted in people’s way of thinking. Unfortunately, all negative “prophesies” I made in 1989 and the early 1990s have been fulfilled; the same cannot be said for my optimistic predictions. Many friends and comrades, by distancing themselves from state socialism, threw away all progressive cultural socialist traditions. I reject this as a sectarian mistake. The more comprehensive the tradition upon which we can draw to mobilise against capitalism, the better.
To me, the change of political systems and everything that has happened afterwards has proven that from a theoretical, methodological and political point of view it is worth consistently holding on to Marx and the revolutionary Marxist tradition with its anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist message. After 1989, the realistic aim has been at best to guarantee the survival of anti-systemic, anti-capitalist thinking, and I believe we have made a certain contribution to this. That is not much, but at least it is not nothing.
Tamás Krausz, born 1948, is a historian and university professor at the Eötvös Loránd Universität in Budapest. His research deals, in the first place, with the history of the Soviet Union up to the Second World War, with the history of Bolshevism and with the lives and careers of Lenin and Stalin. More recently, he has published about “controversial questions in the history of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century”, and the “concealed genocide”, perpetrated amongst others by Hungarian occupational troops in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. His monumental work Reconstructing Lenin. An Intellectual Biography has been awarded the German Memorial Prize, after an English translation had been published in 2015. Krausz is a key figure in the anti-capitalist left in Hungary. In the years 1988/89, he participated in the founding of the Association of the Left Alternative (Baloldali Alternatíva Egyesülés), an organisation of several hundred intellectuals, which aimed at the realisation of the socialism of self-government. This, according to Krausz, “was not a seemly naïve association but a moral community”. Supported by, amongst others, the members of this organisation, Krausz became one of the founders of a political platform within the Hungarian Socialist Party, which definied itself as anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist, and later took on the name Association of the Left (Baloldali Tömörülés). Between 1989 and 2009, Krausz was the deputy chair of this inner-party platform. In April 2009, he left the Hungarian Socialist Party. The most robust initiative in the creation of which Krausz, together with some friends, took a leading role, proved to be the quarterly magazine for social and cultural critique »Eszmélet«. This magazine, which has been published since 1989, is Hungary’s only journal for Marxist theory. Since its beginning, Krausz has been an editor of the paper.
This interview was carried out by Susan Zimmermann. It was first published in the German socialist daily neues deutschland, 20/21 August 2016.
Translated into English for LeftEast by Dagmar Engelken.