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The Boomerang Intellectual

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 John Feffer

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.
The InterviewI 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.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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