Intellectuals and politics

Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century the intelligentsia was in the forefront of modernization and, perhaps more importantly, of the national movements in Eastern Europe. Poets, lawyers, and in some even more backward regions, the clergy were the politically active segment of a society where most of the people couldn’t even read or write. The writers and poets were especially important because, after all, the whole reform movement in the region began with linguistic reforms. The Slovaks purposely picked an Eastern Slovak dialect to make themselves more distinguishable from the Czechs. The Romanians began to reform their language to make it closer to its Latin roots. The Hungarians began an intensive effort to "Hungarianize" the language, to get rid of German import words and substitute for them made-up Hungarian words. A lot of these newly invented words thankfully disappeared, but some remain to this day as part of the vocabulary.

Normally the intellectuals active in the reform movement didn’t move into political life, but there were a couple of notable exceptions in Hungary. For instance, Sándor Petőfi, the young firebrand poet whose thoughts from morning till night centered around the history of the French revolution and who wanted to hang all kings, tried his hands at politics. He went off to campaign in the district of Szabadszállás; soon enough he had to escape to avoid an attack by the conservative peasantry. What would have happened to Petőfi as a would-be politician had he not died on the battlefield in 1849 we of course don’t know. His friend and fellow writer Mór Jókai (1825-1904) at the end of his life became a permanent member of the Upper House. This wasn’t really a political post but rather a gesture from the government toward the writer of bestsellers. In general, when there is political stability, when there is a parliamentary system even if not in the modern sense, intellectuals don’t play a political role. Politicians take over as is expected. This was situation even between the two world wars when Hungarian democracy was anything but perfect.

The situation changed dramatically after the introduction of the one-party system. Since there was no political opposition, the voice of dissent could be heard from intellectual circles: poets, writers, newspapermen. These people were behind the intellectual and eventually political foment preceding the 1956 revolution and "negotiated" with the Kádár regime after the revolution’s demise. In the 1980s the writers, especially those belonging to the Hungarian "narodnik" movement (népiesek), were again active. This time their main concern was the fate of the Hungarian minority in the neighboring countries, especially in Romania. The other group of dissenters, the so-called urbanites, was a mixed lot: it included not only writers but sociologists, philosophers, university professors, and other white-collar intellectual types. In Hungarian some people like to call them "’írástudók" (originally people who can read and write), a term I intensely dislike because it is so meaningless in the twenty-first century.

Some of these intellectual types at the time of the change of regime (1989-1990) rushed to enter politics. A lot of them ended up in parliament, which some promptly left because they discovered that after all politics wasn’t their thing.

So what happened to the other intellectuals of the 1980s? Some who felt important and appreciated in the Kádár regime now feel neglected and are bitter. Viktor Orbán with his usual political finesse managed to recruit some of these people to his cause. As far as I can see those writers and artists who sit behind Viktor Orbán at Fidesz rallies are no longer prominent in Hungarian intellectual life. Somewhat similarly, the older, no longer active, once upon a time much pampered sport stars are also part of the Fidesz decor. They often speak of themselves as victims of the old regime but in reality they received all sorts of privileges. Why they feel neglected today? Most likely because in the multi-party democracy there is less veneration of sports heroes, especially ones who are over seventy. There also seem to be a number of right-wingers among the older actors. In the Kádár regime actors were venerated and had secure lifetime positions. Today their life is anything but secure. Apparently, they also have financial difficulties because there are too many theaters, too many actors and not much money.

Yesterday I saw a group of left-wing intellectuals talking about the coalition’s breakup and was astonished to see how little these people understand politics. They acted as if no referendum ever took place. For them, principle is the only guidepost. These people would bang their heads against the brick wall or think that "after us the flood." Most of them seemed to me ardent supporters of SZDSZ and felt perfectly justified at leaving the coalition on account of Ágnes Horváth. Heck with the future, the possibility of early elections. I really would like to hear them again if Fidesz won the elections. I already hear the ranting and raving. The only thing I don’t understand: why do representatives of the media find it important to ask for their opinions? Maybe it’s just an old habit.

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Eva, An interesting post but one that has me again asking the question: why have Hungrian’s many fine writers not had much effect on Hungarian public morality? In Victorian Britain, writers such as Dickens, Trollope and Mrs Gaskell had a real impact on public morality and consequently policy. This tradition was carried through to the 20th century by writers such as George Orwell. I use a plot synopsis of “Rokonok” to explain to my English friends and family why protekció is not just corruption. But why is it still seen as a good thing to ‘fix’ things for your dependants. In the “A Noszty fiú…” a aged aristocrat is shown to denounce jews as a class for reasons of political expediency while helping the poor jew at his gate. Yet sixty years after the holocaust, we can still hear anti-semitic hysteria as a commonplace of Hungarian conversation. Finally, reading “A látogató” it is impossible to tell whether the social worker works in a city that is part of the capitalist west or the socialist east, because the character of human suffering and deprivation he visits is common to both. Yet many Hungarians want to characterise the socialist regime as uniquely… Read more »

(I just wanted to remark that the English translation of Konrád’s “A látogató” is “The Case Worker”)


***…the capitalist west or the socialist east, because the character of human suffering and deprivation he visits is common to both. Yet many Hungarians want to characterise the socialist regime as uniquely evil.***
I don’t follow. Looks like for some reason our wires continuely cross. 🙂
So where do you stand on this? Socialiam (not Swedish-style here) is not uniquely evil? That is, so is western-style capitalism? They are both evil?


I have always been disgusted by the Hungarian style nepotism.
Yet, I cannot help seeing it here, in Canada, just the same. Nothing can be done, (well, hardly anything) without some personal connections, or at least, with connections everything can be done easier, faster, better.
I am no longer as disgusted as I used to be, although still feel a bit of disapproval every time. However I have to attribute it now to my earlier, Hungarian conditioning. While I am having pangs of conscience, the whole society is cheerfully “networking” and have a whale of a time doing it.
Perhaps the difference between these two similar social structures is that in the old, Hungarian society there was no alternative to nepotism, while in my more healthy Canadian surroundings at least the government is oblivious to it, (in most cases) while business thrives on it.


Varangy, your didactic singlemindedness is not conducive.
Socialism was not completely evil, if you consider the elimination of the bone-grinding poverty that was left behind by the Horthy era. It wasn’t wealth, but it was honourable penury for the wast majority. It alleviated the conditions that earlier forced the notorious emigration of three million paupers. It wasn’t a sustainable, or desirable political system, but at least it was livable somehow.
Nor is capitalism fully ideal.
But whatever the system, the measurement of success is the opportunity it gives to the individual to realize his desires.
The political system in Hungary wasn’t evil, it was merely lousy. And now the capitalism, or a similacrum of it, is similarly insufficient to cater to everyone.
It is not the system, but the people who carry it out, that makes the difference.


Sandor, good post!