What happened in Hungary in 1989-90? A revolution? Yes!

I will start far away from Hungary this afternoon. A couple of years ago Yale University began putting videos of select undergraduate lecture courses online. The number of online courses is growing; just lately a few more history courses became available. Among them lectures delivered by Joanne Freedman on the American revolution.

American colonial and revolutionary history always interested me. At one point I was even thinking of specializing in it. So I thought I would refresh my knowledge of the subject. I enjoyed all of Freedman's lectures, but her last lecture entitled "Being an American: The Legacy of the Revolution" especially intrigued me. She quotes two important eyewitnesses to the revolution who more or less agree about its nature. According to John Adams, the revolution began "in the Minds of the People, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington." So, the revolution was independent of the war that had a distinct beginning and end. While Adams talked about the beginnings of the revolution, his friend Benjamin Rush tried to date the end of the revolutionary period: "We have changed our forms of government, but it remains to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners, so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted."

Let's see the dictionary meaning of the word "revolution." In the world of government, politics, and diplomacy it means "the overthrow or repudiation of a regime or political system by the governed." Revolutions do not necessarily have to be violent; they can be peaceful or negotiated. The important consideration is that the change must involve some kind of large-scale transfer of power. Revolution means a major shift in sovereignty of some kind. But, adds Freedman in her lecture, "for the struggle and the instability of the revolution to come to a close, obviously there has to be some kind of a shared agreement about the nature of the final product." In the United States that shared agreement took time to develop: about a generation. That is a long time, especially if we consider that the Americans fought for "liberties of the British citizens" residing in the colonies. They had a strong sense of rights and were accustomed to self-government.

Now let's turn to the Hungarian "revolution" of 1989-90. According to the dictionary definition it was a "revolution" because it was the "repudiation of a regime by the governed," regardless of what József Antall thought about the negotiations during the Round Table Discussions. And, by definition, Orbán is dead wrong when he thinks that his landslide victory in 2010 was a true revolution while 1989-90 was some dreadful compromise with the dictatorship. No, the change of regime was complete. There was a new democratic constitution, and the modern Hungarian "founding fathers" managed to build a political structure that was lasting, at least until now. What has been missing is the "shared agreement" between the government and the governed that is necessary for the smooth functioning of the new political system. Or, in other words, this time returning to Benjamin Rush, "a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners" didn't take place. In plain language there was a democratic structure but the majority of the people didn't really understand or even accept the idea of democracy.

However, twenty years have gone by and the number of people who have grasped the notion of democratic principles has grown. We have no precise idea of the numbers, but it seems to me that the Orbán government's autocratic ways are being tolerated less and less. If one is optimistic, one might look upon Orbán's "revolution in the voting booths" as an important step toward the closure of Hungary's democratic revolution of 1989-90. Perhaps it will be a clarion call to those who until now didn't really think of the blessings of democracy as far as their individual freedoms are concerned. Perhaps when this is over there will be more of a "shared agreement" between politicians and the citizenry concerning democratic values. Or, as Freedman said, "revolutions end when public opinion conforms with new post-revolutionary forms of governance." Let's hope that will happen soon in Hungary.

 

 

 

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Member

Maybe it’s because I am from the UK, but the word “revolution” does not conjur up lots of positive images for me. The overwhelming majority of political revolutions were led by or hijacked by fanatics and led to bloodbaths.
I can see that in Hungary “revolution” is regarded as a positive word due to communist propaganda, and in particular discussion over whether 1956 was a revolution (and therefore a good thing) or a counter-revolution (and therefore a bad thing).
I suppose the question we must ask is why any supposedly anti-communist political movement today, in the 21st century, would want to tick the right Marxist boxes (revolution=good)?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

David: “Maybe it’s because I am from the UK, but the word “revolution” does not conjur up lots of positive images for me. The overwhelming majority of political revolutions were led by or hijacked by fanatics and led to bloodbaths.”
Sure, but a revolution doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. Its first meaning (politics, government) is “sudden, radical, or complete change.” In Marxist theory it means “the violent and historically necessary transition from one system of production in a society to the next, as from feudalism to capitalism.” But that doesn’t mean that we cannot use the word–as long as it is properly defined–in the sense I used it.

Szabad Ember
Guest

The word ‘revolution’ has a more positive connotation in the U.S., probably because of the American Revolution.
On a slightly different topic, there seems to be a list being compiled of Jews, Bolsheviks, and Homosexuals. This is so reminiscent of the beginnings of so many of the authoritarian regimes in history that, for the first time, I’m actually beginning to be concerned that people won’t figure this all out before it’s too late. I hope I’m wrong.
http://newyork.timeout.com/arts-culture/upstaged-blog/579635/canary-in-the-coal-mine-theatermaking-gets-scary-in-hungary

Kirsten
Guest

Do people believe in general in this notion of a “revolution at the ballot box”? I am unable to say whether in Hungary one should call the events of 1989 a revolution or not, but it appears quite clear to me that a change in the government that occurred in full accordance with the electoral law cannot be easily classified as a revolution. What Fidesz is changing is the constitution and some institutions, but not every change in the constitution of a country needs to be called a revolution. In think that the change from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic in France is not considered a revolution, although this changed the system of government considerably.
But Eva, I was thinking how many “revolutions” have there been in Hungary? I thought it was 1848, then 1918 (of Bela Kun, but I am not sure whether this is considered a revolution) and then 1989 (at least this is how the events in the Soviet bloc are typically classified). Is it not strange that Fidesz is trying to draw on this heritage?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kirsten: “Do people believe in general in this notion of a “revolution at the ballot box”?”
In my opinion, no!

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

Kirsten: you forgot to list, in addition to 1848, 1919 and 1989, the Revolution of 1956.

Paul
Guest

The ‘revolution’ of 56 was actually an attempted revolution. It did not succeed, so it was not a revolution.
It could be argued, as with the other great failed ‘revolution’ of 1848, that it did eventually lead to a significant change in government. But I think that would be stretching a point somewhat beyong its breaking point.

Kirsten
Guest

Sackhoes, I was not sure, that is why I asked, alright with 1956 being a revolution (I thought it was an “uprising”) it could be comprehensible why Fidesz wants to be seen as linked to a revolution. But still, for me it shows the inconsistency of trying to be “conservative” or “traditional” in a post-communist setting. What does conservative mean if you need a “revolution” to get there? I doubt that many other revolutionaries thought of themselves as being conservatives (perhaps the Iranians).

Paul
Guest

An interesting article, Éva.
But I think we need something more than the definition given: “Revolution means a major shift in sovereignty of some kind.”
For instance, a big talking point here in the UK at the moment is the possibility of Scotland breaking away from the UK, after the massive SNP win in the Scottish elections.
Such a possibility is still a long way off (although I now think it WILL happen, and probably (just) in my lifetime). But if it did happen it would easily fit the given definition of a ‘revolution’, however I don’t think even the SNP would actually call it that.
I think this is because a) it will have happened within a democracy, using the lawful, peaceful means of that democracy, and b) it will have happened quite slowly over a period of 50+ years.
So does a revolution have to be unexpected and over relatively quickly to be truly worthy of the name?

Member
Last year after the election I got dinged seriously by an elderly, very Fideszoid, relative of mine when he broke the news to me about the “revolution”. The fellow by the way went from jailed 56er to Kadarian communist informant to MDF mucky-muck and finally ended up a Johnny Boyesque wingnut. I was naively disputing that why on earth is this a revolution when a party was bumped with a bit more then 50% of the votes. A party that was in power for 12 years during 20 post-commie years, was elected 3 times while for the FIDESZ this is the second time. Why is this a revolution and why wasn’t this a revolution in 98 when the FIDESZ beat the MSzP? On the other hand I think the events in 89-90 was indeed “some dreadful compromise with the dictatorship”. It was very said, and I still don’t understand exactly why, that the Antall government, after they consolidated the power say in 91 didn’t go after the commies. This could have brought some sort of closure to the sufferings during the Kadar era. It may have taken out some of the wind from the Orbanists sails 20 years later. It… Read more »
Member

Mutt, I believe that the way of thinking in Hungary has been shaped too much by communism. Stalin needed Kulaks as a fictional enemy and in many ways the “communists” (and Jews etc) are a similar fictional enemy to the Hungarian right.
So far as I can see ex-commie informers tend to be more likely to be on the far right than anywhere else on the political spectrum; they still long to be the dictator’s groupies (see Csurka for example).
In other words a real process of prosecuting ex-commies would probably have made little difference.

wpDiscuz