The Hungarian intellectual elite

I know that I should say something about the "polypgate" affair that is getting to be more and more interesting and more and more confusing. "Polypgate" is the new name for the latest political scandal in Hungary. The name is the result of something György Szilvásy said about UD Zrt. According to the minister UD Zrt. developed a network that was like a polyp that spread its arms all over the country and over all sorts of government agencies. In any case, "polypgate" is getting increasingly difficult to understand mostly because the people involved are making every effort to hide their roles and original intentions. More than that, they are trying to put the blame on the other side. By now the young Kornél Almássy (MDF) has regained his voice and is telling horror stories about the illegal activities of the government security officers. The lawyer of UD Zrt. is suing select newspapers, television stations, and, by name, József Debreczeni. Sándor Csányi is writing letters to the police complaining about computers that were seized at the headquarters of UD Zrt. but in fact belonged to him. And on top of everything Fidesz made public seven conversations between László Kövér and Ervin Demeter and József Horváth, an owner of UD Zrt. Needless to say, out of all the tapes only those were made public that contain no incriminating evidence. Meanwhile, the MSZP-SZDSZ members of the committee on national security got the proof they asked for and are certain that crimes have been committed. In return, the legal expert of Fidesz, Róbert Répássy, is demanding Szilvásy's resignation. I hope that in a day or two we will understand a little bit more. So today I would rather talk about an article by Péter Róna, the economist, who can write intelligently not only about the Hungarian economy but also about Hungarian society–in this case, its intellectual elite.

The article, a critique of László Lengyel's recent forays into the political sphere, is entitled "Authority and Democracy." By way of background here's a brief bio of Lengyel, who claims to be an economist, a political scientist, and a writer. Well, it is true that he wrote a lot of books, mostly collections of political essays. As far as his academic credentials, the only degree from an academic institution I could find was a law degree from ELTE (1969-1974). Yet he became a "candidate of economic sciences" in 1985. The "candidate" degree was something like a Ph.D. but the degree was given out by the Academy of Sciences. It was a copycat version of the Soviet system.

Lengyel was an important figure in the late 1980s when he worked for the Pénzügykutatói Intézet (Institute of Monetary Research) and was the co-author of an influential book called Fordulat és reform (Change and Reform). Lengyel joined the Communist party as a young man, allegedly because he wanted to reform it from within. The authorship of Fordulat és reform cost him his membership in the party, and from there on he was a revered figure in circles opposing the Kádár regime. In any case, Lengyel became a well known figure who besides writing on economic topics also specialized in political science. Mostly prognoses of what will happen in the future. His claim to fame was that none of his predictions ever panned out. His analyses usually revolved around personalities whom he liked to compare to animals. Perhaps he got the inspiration from Isaiah Berlin (The Hedgehog and the Fox).

Róna thinks that Lengyel is typical of a certain segment of the Hungarian intellectual elite. This elite imagines a political arrangement that is the result not of the popular will but is based on the leading role of the intellectuals. He was apparently the first person to come up with the "government of experts" as a solution to Hungary's alleged ills. Róna in this article that appeared in Népszabadság (September 24) is actually arguing with something Lengyel wrote in the same paper (September 13) entitled "In No Man's Land." Róna accuses Lengyel of proposing to ruin the reputation of the political elite (be it either left or right) to ensure the leading role of the intellectual elite.

Róna then continues to dissect what Lengyel has to say. According to Lengyel Gyurcsány's trustworthiness is questionable because his program "was written in three days, he didn't consult with anyone, and this is the seventh variation" of his ideas. Thus, the problem with the program is not its content but that it was written in a short time. The fact is that this essay was a very well prepared study that showed serious work, most likely by a score of people in the ministry of finance. Another alleged problem was that the prime minister didn't consult with the intellectual elite or at least with the party's presidium. Róna rightly points out that the party's presidium is not an elected body. Let's assume that the presidium doesn't support Gyurcsány's ideas. Does this mean that the prime minister cannot share his ideas with the nation?

Róna then goes into some detail about Lengyel's penchant for comparing political figures to either animals or Shakespearian characters. Lengyel's so-called analyses "ever since Cicero have been called ad hominem attacks that are looked upon in western civilization with suspicion if not contempt. However, this method of argumentation is the vocabulary and syntax of Hungarian public discourse today." What is important to these intellectuals is not the actual economic situation and the political program but whether "Orbán or Gyurcsány is a tiger, or who is a psychopath, a liar, a cheat, etc." The explanation for this "grotesque" situation can be found in Hungarian's society desire for a leader. Preferably a strong leader. Róna seems to have been struck, just as I was, by the findings of Pál Tamás's sociological study about the spread of right-wing ideology that supports his thesis by underscoring Hungarian society's need for authority. For someone who will tell them what to do. Róna feels that no change in Hungarian society at large can be expected as long as the intellectual elite "wants to have political power."

One thing is sure. While the business world successfully morphed from socialist production to capitalism, intellectual professions have refused to budge. It's enough to look at  health care or the Academy of Sciences that is very happy with the Soviet model that was forced upon it in 1948-1949. After all, it became a mammoth organization with hundreds of research institutes and very nice extra income for three hundred some academicians. Intellectuals heralded the change in the late 1980s but now they feel threatened. Deep down, I'm certain, they feel that democracy has cheated them of their leading role in society.

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Hungarians are prisoners to any vestige of an intellectual oligarchy, because they are inveterate snobs who have been trained through appalling schooling methods from cradle through into higher education to value paper qualifications above the content of someone’s argument. Even though the majority of students are trained to cheat in exams, the examination process is laughable and many people in high positions have even gone as far as to pay for fake qualifications. This is why Hungarian society is cursed by sophistry.
Try reasoning with a Hungarian about someone who is talking nonsense and the only cogent replay is ‘they have written a book on this’, ‘they are highly respected’, ‘they have a doctorate’ – as if any of that counts for anything.
Until people grow up mentally they deserve the quality and form of society they live in.