“To the left!”: A debate on social democracy in Hungary

The debate occurred between two former colleagues who worked for Magyar Hírlap before that paper became the mouthpiece of the far right. But their careers took very different turns. Gyula Hegyi became a socialist politician while László Bartus left for the United States where he is currently the editor-in-chief of a Hungarian-language weekly, Amerikai-Magyar Népszava Szabadság, which first appeared in 1891. From its name it is evident that the paper from its launch was closely associated with the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. So one would think that the two men would think alike. Wrong! Hegyi belongs to the left wing of MSZP which accepts capitalism with reluctance and would like to "tame it," while Bartus is certain that as long as capitalism is healthy the ordinary folks will thrive.

Both Gyula Hegyi and László Bartus are prolific writers. Hegyi wrote hundreds of articles on culture and politics in Hungarian dailies and weeklies as well as nine books: three collections of poems and six nonfiction books, mostly about the left. One of his books, published in 1995, is entitled Left-Side Story. Yes, with this English title. I also found an article of his in The Guardian (December 22, 2006) with the title and lead sentence "Learn from our failures and create a socialist democracy: Eastern Europe remains condemned by its past to neo-liberalism, but Latin America can break free if it pays heed to the lessons" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/dec/22/comment.venezuela). I guess this pretty well sums up Hegyi's political philosophy. Bartus is also prolific. He wrote several books from the vantage point of an investigator reporter, the best known of which is one on the early extreme right (Jobb magyarok: A szélsőjobb útja a hatalomhoz [2000]). In addition he writes a column every week in Amerikai-Magyar Népszava (http://nepszava.com/).

The debate started with an article by Gyula Hegyi in Népszava (June 25, 2009) entitled "Balra át!" (To the Left!). Perhaps before I summarize Hegyi's ideas on the course MSZP should take I ought to note that in the last five years Hegyi has been a member of the European Parliament. On this year's MSZP list he was number five and only four MSZP candidates made it. So it's no wonder that he is unhappy.

Hegyi starts by conceding future defeat for the party (which, as I've said earlier, no politician should ever do). He announces that MSZP has no chance at the next elections. According to him in the past the hope of victory was always there, even in 1998 when Fidesz could only win by making a deal with the Smallholders after the first round of voting when MSZP was leading. But now "practically no one believes that MSZP can possibly win" in 2010. The "staggering defeat" suffered should wake up the leadership of MSZP: there must be a change. It must be a fundamental change, not just "a change of slogans." According to him MSZP supporters became disillusioned because they perceived the party as "representing the interests of big business." Up to a point, Hegyi continues, this accusation is unfair because the party "tried to soften the antisocialist measures of the government and tried to lessen the outrageous privileges of the plutocracy." It's okay if the capitalists support MSZP from the background, but "they mustn't have a role in the management of the party." Hegyi here is obviously referring to Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former businessman. The socialist, leftist former majority of the population turned away from their favorite party because a capitalist was leading it. Gyurcsány, the capitalist, is gone but what about Gordon Bajnai, the other capitalist? I assume that in Hegyi's mind the problem hasn't been solved with Gyurcsány's departure. After all, MSZP is supporting a government that is headed by another wealthy former businessman.

For Hegyi a turn "To the left!" can be credible only if the party "unequivocally breaks with the representatives of capitalist interests." The party should abandon its "earlier practice of deals and instead should choose a leadership completely free of any financial past." For a politics of the left one needs politicians of the left. His final sentence reads: "The people are waiting for a pure left that captures the original meaning of the words and that represents the socialist communal ethos within the inevitable embrace of capitalism."

László Bartus, reading this, became irate and wrote a sharp reply in the July 6 issue of the same paper. The title is "Balra át? Hova?" (To the left? Where?) If Hegyi thinks that "the problems of Hungary are caused by capitalism" he is wrong. The problem is exactly the opposite: it is the lack of true capitalism. MSZP–in Bartus's opinion–"softened" capitalism to such an extent that it managed to prevent its full development. Perhaps unfairly Bartus interprets Hegyi's reference to those who consistently represented the socialist ideals as people "whose thinking hasn't changed since 1972." He blames Hegyi and his leftist comrades for the financial troubles of the country. After all, they were the ones who spent nonexistent revenues on a pseudo-welfare state. For Bartus "a leftist turn" would be the final nail in Hungary's coffin. It is clear that for Bartus "a leftist turn" means overspending followed by belt tightening. Gyurcsány said something similar in his blog: the problem is not that they were not leftist enough but sometimes they were too much so. But Bartus goes farther because he seems to believe in trickle-down or supply-side economics. He closes with a few words about Hegyi's invidious comment about those businessmen who shouldn't be anywhere close to the party. His retort: "We can hardly wait for the time when we can read again after the MSZP candidates' names like in the olden days: János Kádár, worker." 

Although Gyula Hegyi wrote that he really shouldn't answer Bartus's piece because "there is a certain level beneath which it's not worth entering into discussion," he does so anyway (Népszava, July 9). He criticizes some of Bartus's overly optimistic descriptions of unregulated capitalism but more importantly he does what he neglected to do in his first piece. He elaborates on what he means by "leftist politics." He "unequivocally states that a turn to the left doesn't mean irresponsible squandering [osztogatás] or an increase in the deficit. It means cutting back the privileges of the capitalists, taxation of luxury cars and eighteen-wheelers rumbling across the country, reduction of bureaucracy in the schools and hospitals, making the life of entrepreneurs easier." Although these measures would mean additional revenues for the government, "the essence [of the left turn] is not a whittling away at the budget but control of financial and economic processes, increasing society's feeling of security, and assisting communal initiatives." MSZP should embrace the goal of full employment that is already included in the Lisbon strategy of the European Union. He admits that at the moment this would be no more than a gesture, but as a longer term goal it should be included in the party platform. In addition, it is not enough to emphasize human rights, greater stress should be placed on the rights of employees and consumers. In addition, "consumers who are at the mercy of unscrupulous 'service' providers of energy should be shielded with the introduction of tough measures." And if that is not enough, "the socialists could clear up a lot of misunderstandings if they would suggest a change in the constitution to declare that the responsibility for health care, education, and energy supply lies with the state." According to Hegyi that doesn't necessarily mean that these sectors should be state-owned but that they should be strictly regulated. He also suggests that "the more important privatizations that took place after 1990 should be reexamined to see whether the new owners honored their obligations as stated in the original contract." If not, the state should severely punish them not only by demanding fines for noncompliance but they should be held legally responsible for breach of contract.

As the world struggles to find a solution to the recently compressed and increasingly devastating boom and bust cycles, this debate may be a humble beginning. On the other hand it may be sadly naive. For those who haven't read one of the most talked about conspiracy theory articles of late, it's an indictment of Goldman Sachs, the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity." The piece appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, of all places, and it's a compelling tale. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/28816321/the_great_american_bubble_machine

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Ida Kiss

Eva, koszonet az irasert! Ritkan fordul elo, hogy magyar problemakat globalis kontextusban mutassanak be. A hazai sajto erre, sajnos, alkalmatlan.
Kiss Ida
Vina del Mar, Chile


Interesting; it’s hard to see how these two approaches can be reconciled within the same political organisation. The differences outlined here are greater than the CDU/CSU and the SPD in Germany. It will be interesting what happens with the MSZP.

To a considerable extent this debate encapsulates the left’s dilemma, and both Bartus and Hegyi both adopt positions that are flawed. This one really is the question of capitalism. On the one hand capitalism is a dynamic system. Through the extension of commodification and the freeing of social actors to pursue increased profit on a global scale with (relatively little) social restraint, unprecedented prosperity had been created. This isn’t just a matter of the transformation of the conditions of life in Europe over the last two hundred, even the last fifty years. We have seen absolute levels of material welfare increase, with sharp falls in the global population living in absolute poverty. But a number of factors – including the current economic crisis, the approach of peak oil and the related issue of rapacious consumption of non-renewable natural resources, as well as the climate crisis have focussed us on the very real costs of that development. The search for profit and the extension of commodification produces behviours from market actors that are morally questionable (the real lesson of the article on Goldman Sachs). The flip-side of the dynamism of capitalism is its destructive tendency to crisis, and its enormous human,… Read more »