The Hungarian liberals, a reflective look

The standoff between Attila Retkes, the new president of SZDSZ, and János Kóka, head of the parliamentary delegation, continues. Nothing new on that front. But there was a thoughtful and enlightening interview with Bálint Magyar, SZDSZ member of parliament and earlier minister of education, in Népszabadság (July 17, 2009) that is worth revisiting. The questions centered around the main problem: how did SZDSZ end up in the current situation?  Because, let's face it, according to many, including Bálint Magyar, "this SZDSZ is finished."

Magyar's answers are revealing. First he points to the positive things one can say about SZDSZ. That it lasted as long as it has. Its history is unique in the sense that it was only in Hungary that "the democratic opposition" that actively fought the one-party dictatorship remained intact both institutionally and in its personnel. Indeed, if we think of either Poland and Czechoslovakia, and I'm sure that Magyar had them in mind, the big names of the late 1980s are gone while in Hungary some of the important figures of the movement still play an active role in politics, including Bálint Magyar, Iván Pető, and Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest. Magyar believes that the reason for this longevity is the "soft dictatorship" that existed in Hungary between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. In other socialist countries the break between the old and the new was much sharper. The entirely new political parties known primarily for their anticommunism appeared suddenly only to disappear soon afterward. In Hungary the transition was peaceful; the price was "you don't shoot us and we don't send you to jail." One can lament today about the lack of a sharp break between old and new, but at the time this was the only way to avoid catastrophe or bloodshed.

The hard core of the "democratic opposition" was very small, a few dozen people at most. Those who sympathized with the opposition but weren't politically active were intellectuals, mostly working in research institutes. While the "hard core" was publishing samizdat articles, the sympathizers, though critical of the regime, were still its beneficiaries. They tried to give advice to the party but it was practically never heeded, so the sympathizers never had to take any responsibility for their advice. After the democratic transformation, however, these people had to choose: either remain a critical intellectual or become a politician. It seems that some people simply couldn't distinguish between the two roles. Magyar refers to a sociological study from 2002 about the group of intellectuals who supported SZDSZ. It turned out that most of them didn't quite know what to do with the concept of competition; they refused to accede to the views of the party's winners. They "stuck to their opinions regardless of reality or rationality." As a result SZDSZ became a party of endless public debate. It didn't matter whether a decision was reached by majority vote, the public debate went on. As Magyar jokingly says: "It often happened that SZDSZ had two opinions about one question but it didn't agree with either." Of course, such an attitude caused uncertainty among SZDSZ supporters.

Eventually this critical attitude of the intellectual supporters seeped into the party itself. There developed an "internal opposition" headed from 1998 on by Gábor Fodor. Fodor acted not as a politician but as "the representative of pure values against everything else that is pragmatic or in his opinion stuck in the mud and fallible." This originally moral stance later "became a simple instrument in a power struggle." The intellectual elite that constituted the bulk of SZDSZ followers "tried to represent its theoretical point of view with unforgiving consistency." This is not surprising from a group of people who spend their time doing systematic analysis, but the ordinary voter is less consistent. Actually, "politics is the fine art of measured inconsistencies." That for the intelligentsia meant a lack of principle. So if one supports gay marriage then one ought to support drug liberalization, and if one believes in freedom of speech then one must allow everything to be said. "In the end you get to the point that there are only a dozen people who can follow you."

While this intellectual elite demanded purity in politics they also wanted to see results. While they dogmatically criticized everything that was "inconsistent with their moral and intellectual values" they wanted to see a party twenty percent of the voters support. Some people blame the misfortunes of the party on forming a coalition with the socialists. Magyar doesn't subscribe to that view. He brought up the example of the Polish liberals who took a different path. They supported the right and yet they also disappeared. And in any case "who in his right mind would believe that if the liberals had stood alongside Fidesz, the Smallholders, and MDF today SZDSZ would be a middle-sized party?" I would go further. Most likely it would have disappeared about the same time as if not earlier than the Smallholders.

It's quite obvious that Bálint Magyar's bête noire is Gábor Fodor. According to him just as Viktor Orbán divided the country between good Hungarians and bad ones, Fodor divided SZDSZ between "true liberals" and "anti-liberals." In his opinion everybody was an anti-liberal who didn't agree with his purist doctrinaire liberalism. And when as president he was faced with a national support level of two percent, "he let Attila Retkes loose on the party." It's too bad that Magyar doesn't talk about the breakup of the coalition in 2008 because I for one would be very curious about his opinion on the subject. Tamás Bauer is among the few former SZDSZ members of parliament who think that it was a singularly bad idea. I am inclined to agree with him. The choice for SZDSZ in the last seven or eight years was to side with the socialists or with Fidesz. There was and there is no third alternative. But even today some politicians in SZDSZ can't understand that very simple truth.