These rude interruptions by the elements, “Irene” or the “Halloween snow storm,” can be useful in the sense that one has plenty of time to do some reading. Among the several volumes I picked up I found especially interesting a publication put out by the 1956-Institute entitled Múlt századi hétköznapok: Tanulmányok a Kádár-rendszer kialakulásának időszakáról (Everyday existence in the last century: Studies on the formation of the Kádár regime). In this large volume I was especially impressed by two studies. One was by Éva Standeisky who wrote a thoughtful article about the complicated relationship between “populist” (népies, narodniy) writers and the communist hierarchy. The other was an article written by János M. Rainer about József Antall’s “everyday compromises” on the basis of reports of political informers.
Here I would like to write about Standeisky’s study and share some of my own thoughts about the way old “populist” ideas remain integral to the worldview of today’s “political right.”
A few years ago one would have thought that the division that existed in Hungarian literature between the “populists” and the “urbanists” was long gone. The young politicians of Fidesz, for example, didn’t want to get involved in the long-standing debate about which camp represented the true Hungary and who was progressive and who wasn’t. I might add here that Fidesz’s period of neutrality in the debate between between populists and urbanists didn’t last long. By now it is quite clear that the Fidesz politicians opted for the “national,” i.e. populist side.
The populists were adherents of a basically socialist system called the “third road.” One road was capitalism and the other Soviet-style communism. Theirs was an imaginary third road that would lead to a perfect socialist regime based on a peasant led society. So, there was a common point between the socialism of the communists and the socialism of the populists. What bound them together was their anti-liberalism, their belief in the importance of the state, their hatred of capitalism, and their antagonism toward the “bourgeoisie.” What divided them was their attitude toward the nation and the role of the peasantry. After all, the communists believed in the importance of the proletariat and considered the peasants a retrograde, outright reactionary force. And, at least in words, they espoused internationalism.
Right after the war politicians of the Nemzeti Parasztpárt (National Peasant Party), the political arm of the populist movement, worked hand in hand with the communists, and some of them actually ended up in the communist party. Éva Standeisky calls them “national communists.” Those who remained outside of the party were followers of “populist-national socialism” (népi-nemzeti szocializmus).
After the 1956 revolution the regime dealt much more harshly with “national communists” than with the populists whom Kádár and his comrades considered only a “semi-opposition.” It is enough to recall that László Németh, a populist writer, received the Kossuth prize right after the victorious return of Kádár and Co. Gyula Illyés, another populist poet and playwright, received the Kossuth prize twice even before 1956 (in 1949 and 1953) and again in 1970. Here is a telling picture of the two favored populist writers, László Németh and Gyula Illyés, with János Kádár. Illyés is on the far left while Németh is next to János Kádár.
After the revolution Illyés was allowed to travel abroad almost yearly, and he was always very careful not to stir up any trouble. In fact he praised the Hungarian government for its agrarian policy that raised the living standards of the peasantry. Where he didn’t see eye to eye with the communists was the Kádár regime’s lack of interest in and solidarity with Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.
Illyés’s nationalism could lead him astray. For example, in 1968 when Hungarian troops took part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia he wrote in his diary that he feels “a masochistic relief … In 1956 the people of Prague demonstrated against Imre Nagy and four times they broke off the Kossuth coat-of-arms from the wall of the Hungarian embassy. Czechoslovakia supplied night sticks to the newly organized police force of Budapest.” So, now it is our turn, or at least this is what it sounds like.
Illyés was certainly a favorite of the regime. Not too many people managed to earn almost one million forints a year as he did in 1971. (Although his fellow populist writer László Németh made slightly more than that in the same year.) Here is a well known portrait of Gyula Illyés:
Despite their favored positions, both writers were watched and reported on. “Sárdi” reported on Illyés, including a description of what Illyés thought about the history of 1918-1919. Illyés was convinced that “the whole October was created by some resourceful members of the haute bourgeoisie and merchants. There was no revolution in 1918. Central power collapsed and this political vacuum was exploited by the bourgeoisie. . . . In the final analysis a few foxy people without roots gambled the country away.” It is hard not to think that Illyés here is thinking of those Jews who were often accused of being people without proper Hungarian roots. “Sárdi” also mentioned that Illyés had the feeling that the country could have been saved within its historical borders. I might add that Illyés was saying all this historical nonsense after a number of very good books had been published by Tibor Hajdu and others on the 1918-1919 revolutions.
The same “Sárdi” reported that Illyés considered the Kádár regime’s communism “Asiatic” and believed that it would not last. In his opinion that kind of communism is “not superior to fascism.” Eventually perhaps a new kind of regime will emerge that will keep the best from both. I must say this is a bizarre thought. According to “Sárdi” Illyés claimed that what was going on in Hungary was nothing more than “Jewish fascism,” but “the Hungarian people need Hungarian leaders and as long as they do not have them there can be no Hungarian life here.”
Of course, it is possible that the informer was not faithfully describing Illyés’s opinions, but considering the nationalism and covert antisemitism that is evident in his diary one has the suspicion that the reported utterances were more or less accurate.
Although the Fidesz youngsters might have been optimistic about the disappearance of the populist versus urbanist controversies from the 1930s, it in fact was very much alive even during the Kádár regime. The “populists” watched with growing concern those writers who gathered around Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) whom they viewed as harboring “cosmopolitan tendencies” and being attracted to “bourgeois democratic principles.”
In the course of the political activities that preceded the change of regime in 1990 the differences between the two world views became apparent. SZDSZ (Szabad Democratic Szövetsége) stepped into the shoes of the “urbanists” while politicians gathering in MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum) got their inspiration from the populists. But while the old populists for the most part criticized the Horthy regime from the left, the MDF politicians considered themselves to be right of center. The Young Democrats (Fidesz), despite their vow not to succumb to the alleged divide between the village folks and the sophisticated often Jewish intellectuals of Budapest, in fact inherited the mantle of the populists together with their anticapitalism, their support of a strong central power, and their belief in the national spirit and Hungarian uniqueness.
It is truly amazing how certain ideological splits refuse to disappear from the national psyche. For instance, the road from yesterday’s urbanists to today’s liberals is straightforward. They still believe that a special Hungarian road to some ideal socialism is a pipe dream and instead look for a solution to the country’s ills in the adoption of fully western democratic principles. Hungary’s problem, according to them, is not that the country didn’t find its unique Hungarian solutions but that it clings to illusions of the “third road.”
By contrast, despite some detours, Fidesz is now bravely marching down that alleged populist third road–a road that often seems more like a thicket.