Monday, July 6, 2009

Interview: Hungary—“Where we went wrong”, GM Tamás

ISJ: GM Tamás, a prominent Hungarian dissident and now professor of philosophy in Budapest, spoke to Chris Harman about developments in Eastern Europe since the fall of Stalinism.

What was important in hindsight was that in the first two years I spent in the highest chamber of my country as a lawmaker two million jobs were lost—and I don’t think I noticed. That is one of the greatest shames of my life. I don’t think it figured in political debates at that time. There were important debates concerning constitutional rights and republican versus monarchist symbols, fights over control of state radio and television. I won’t say political conflicts were not important but compared to the economic disaster they were of less importance, and we did not see the interdependence between the two. Why did the ruling class need the centralisation of media power? Because it was losing majority support from the population that were getting impoverished. We were totally naive and our discourse at the time was that of classic liberalism and pretty ineffective. This liberal party will probably now, and quite deservedly, disappear from parliament.


From the 1920s the Stalinist system—however monstrous, tyrannical and state capitalist it was—had through urbanisation and industrialisation created the livelihoods and life forms of hundreds of millions of people. They may have been disappointed and dissatisfied with the way of life but nevertheless it was theirs. And nobody had prepared them for what was to replace it. It was not something better, not something we might call “change”, but instead the end to economy as such.

In large parts of Eastern Europe and the Eurasian landmass there was the loss of what we knew of as civilisation, which was very much dependent on the state. The state has barely started to function again in Putin’s Russia—in a very unpleasant way—but it is starting to work regularly, making records, collecting revenue, paying civil servants, answering letters, receiving citizens with complaints. But in the early 1990s even that was not available: it was a total disaster. Meanwhile we, the froth at the top of it, were celebrating the triumph of freedom and openness and plurality and fantasy and pleasure and all that. That was frivolous, and I am deeply ashamed.


Soviet-type state capitalism was a commodity-producing, wage labour based, unequal, hierarchic, repressive money economy and a class society to outclass all class societies which was extremely efficient in suppressing proletarian resistance. Revolts against that regime have always been socialist revolutions, in 1956 the workers’ councils in Hungary, in 1968 the humanistic socialism in Czechoslovakia. Solidarność was in fact no trade union but a network of territorially organised workers’ councils which initially wanted a self-management proletarian republic of a self-governing people, before repression made it into a bitterly conservative, pessimistic and Catholic movement to disintegrate at the moment of political “victory”. The Central European style of “enlightened absolutism”, of top-down reforms devised by scientifically and philosophically trained elite planners has not changed since the 18th century. “Communist” economic planners were painlessly transmogrified into neoconservative monetarist planners. For them, in a characteristically positivist manner, “socialism” was but an error in economic calculus. Marginal utility seemed more “modern” than the labour theory of value—and bureaucrats go more willingly with the prevailing fashion than couturiers.

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