József Antall’s sin? Hungary in 1989-1990

Lia suggested that we ought to blame József Antall: if only he had purged the political leadership of the communists, the country would be better off today. Lia brings up two Eastern European countries, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, where legislation barred communist party members from political participation. I am no expert on German or Czech politics, but as far as I know the German communist party (Party of Democratic Socialism) is an active participant in the political processes of the unified Germany. In fact, I recall that the party does very well in the territories of the former DDR. In Czechoslovakia there were suggestions to bar former communists from holding offices for five years, but I’m not sure whether it actually became a law. In any case, the communist party is quite strong in the Czech Republic as it has been ever since the birth of the republic.

But let’s go back to Hungary in 1989 and before. In comparison to East Germany and Czechoslovakia the Hungarian dictatorship was very mild. You know: the happiest barracks of the eastern bloc, gulyas communism, etc. There was relative economic prosperity as well. And finally and most importantly, there was a "negotiated settlement" between the MSZMP and the parties of the new democratic opposition. They sat down for the first time on November 27, 1988, at a round table (hence the name, Round Table Negotiations) and hammered out a new constitution and a democratic structure for the country. During these negotiations, the old communist party, however reluctantly, gave up power and entrusted its future to the will of the people. Under these circumstances it would haven been difficult to say: well, gentlemen (comrades) it was very decent of you not to use the Workers’ Militia against us, but once we are in power you will be barred from political participation.

The people who sat around that table negotiating with the communists were committed democrats: they couldn’t imagine using undemocratic means to oust their former adversaries. They were confident that the wise people of the country would decide the fate of the communists in free elections. And indeed the MSZP, the reform wing of the former communist party, received less than 10% of the votes in 1990. The real communists, organized under a new name–Magyar Munkáspárt, received so few votes (0.25%) that they didn’t even get into parliament.

As an aside, I would note that the negotiators who were preparing the way for the change of regime were perhaps too scrupulous in their defense of democratic rights. One reason there are so many holes in the laws of assembly and freedom of speech is because these democrats wanted to compensate (and perhaps overcompensate) after years of dictatorship. They opened the door so wide that now the police and courts seem to be powerless against people whose intentions cannot be called exactly democratic. And the laws are poorly crafted: for instance, nowhere is there any stipulation about how long a demonstration can last. A crowd comprised in large part of homeless people stayed in front of the parliament for weeks in pitched tents.

Back to the main thread: as Antall said so cleverly when some of his friends in his party complained that he was not standing up to the communists, "Well, gentlemen, you should have staged a revolution!" (In Hungarian it sounds even better: "Uraim, tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni!") But the truth is that one cannot just get up one morning and stage a revolution. Revolutions happen in revolutionary situations. And there was no revolutionary situation in Hungary in 1989-1990. Oh yes, people wanted to live better, and they thought that "democracy" would surely bring greater prosperity. After all, during their trips to Austria it was apparent that the "in-laws" (as Hungarian jokingly call the Austrians because of their common history) lived much better than they did. But the people didn’t call for a change of regime, most didn’t want to take revenge on those who had been communist party members. In fact, as Hungary transitioned to a democracy most of the people didn’t even know what was going on and why.

So what was the result of "playing nice" to the communists? The hard liners in the party retired. The people who became capitalists after 1990 didn’t belong to the former nomenclature (the top leaders, perhaps 4,000 bigwigs). The greatest beneficiaries of privatization were the middle managers of the state enterprises. They may have been party members, but they didn’t profit because of their former party membership. No, they were the men who had management experience, who knew the business. Viktor Orbán’s father is a good example of a former communist who profited from privatization.

Some of the political leaders in today’s MSZP were members of KISZ, the youth organization. They were neither powerful nor rich, but they had connections and we know that connections are important. Not just in Hungary at the threshold of capitalism but everywhere in the world.

A final point: the communists were not those "who made millions from the blood, sweat and tears of others"  (see Lia’s comment). Sure, they lived a great deal better than the average, but they were not really rich. Rather they had privileges. I highly recommend János Kornai’s book, The Socialist System. The Political Economy of Communism. In it, Kornai offers a comprehensive analysis of the party and government elite’s situation in Hungary. The differences in wealth between the rich, the average, and the poor are much greater today than during the Kádár regime.

All in all, I think Hungary did reasonably well by not barring former communists from assuming any political role in the democratic state. Those who were at the top of the heap before 1990 have either retired or died. Last year’s first-time voters were born in 1988. As Hungary imitates the West and becomes increasingly forward-looking, the Hungarian past will become an academic subject rather than a source of societal angst. Future historians may even decide that the transition period wasn’t half bad in comparison to the agonies of some other countries in the region.