Tag Archives: KISZ

András Schiffer: From KISZ to neo-communism?

Just as I suspected, in one short post I couldn’t cover the departure of András Schiffer, the founder and leader of LMP, from politics as well as opinions of him that have appeared since his announcement. Over the years I have written more than a dozen articles about LMP and András Schiffer and yet, after re-reading them, I must admit that I never managed to give a satisfactory portrait of this complex, controversial, divisive man. I guess one day someone will write a book on LMP and the abortive attempt to establish a true green party in Hungary. That book will undoubtedly praise Schiffer, the party’s founder, for being able in two short years to build a party that sent a fifteen-member delegation to the Hungarian parliament. No mean feat. But most of the book will probably be about the constant internal fights within the party and its founder’s unyielding and, in my opinion mistaken, ideology and political strategy.

I suspect that most people would agree with András Stumpf of the pro-government Mandiner.hu website that, without Schiffer, LMP’s chances of becoming a parliamentary party in 2018 are remote. The party leaders of LMP are naturally much more upbeat. Bernadett Szél, co-chairman of LMP, sounded neither heartbroken about Schiffer’s departure nor pessimistic about the future of the party. She took the news laconically. “I’m old enough to know that if someone wants to leave, one should let him go. Today I can’t worry about this. Instead, I want to make sure that the green party that has grown roots in the country has a future.” She is already organizing a tour of the countryside with a view to widening the territorial base of LMP. Szél in this interview gave the impression of being a liberated woman who can now do things her own way. As for the hard-and-fast rule of not allying LMP with any other political formation, it remains in place as far as I can see.

Photo: István Fekete

Bernadett Szél. Photo: István Fekete

Among those with LMP ties, the greatest admirer is Péter Róna, which makes sense given Róna’s economic precepts, which include anti-capitalist sentiments and ideas of the “népiesek,” a group of people who envisaged a Hungary whose economy would be a “third road” between capitalism and socialism. Róna simply cannot understand the Hungarian intellectual elite’s indifference, or in some cases hatred, toward Schiffer, whom he considers the best and most honest politician in Hungary today.

Endre Kukorelly, who for a few months was an LMP member of parliament in 2010, is a writer. Since I haven’t read a line of his, I can’t pass judgment on his literary talents. But, to me, his political views are muddled. He who quit parliament after a few months hails Schiffer’s decision because it is so much easier to do politics without the shackles of a party. He represents the unproductive view that political parties are evil and that civilians are the ones who will change the present system.

The opinions of most other former LMP members, however, are pretty uniformly negative.

Benedek Jávor, whose activities in the European Parliament I greatly admire, most likely hit the nail on the head when he observed that “the conflicts that led to a split in the party have not dissipated with our departure,” referring to PM members’ leaving LMP in January 2013.

Virág Kaufer, who left LMP in 2012, suggested that Schiffer “take some time off and take a good look at what he created and speak with those who are no longer his supporters.”

Perhaps Gábor Vágó, a former LMP insider, best summarized LMP’s problem. In his opinion, Schiffer’s departure “is not the end of the LMP story. The fate of the party was sealed when it abandoned its critical attitude toward [Orbán’s] system.”

At the end of this post you will find about a dozen links to my past articles on LMP and András Schiffer, from which a fuller picture of LMP’s role in Hungarian politics should emerge. But perhaps I should add a few details that might be helpful in explaining where Schiffer came from.

Schiffer’s first political act at the age of eighteen was adding his name to an open letter addressed to the Congress of KISZ (Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). The letter was dated April 10, 1989. Less than two weeks later KISZ was dissolved. Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány (KISZ secretary), and György Szilvássy (KISZ spokesman and later minister in Gyurcsány’s cabinet) also signed the letter. Schiffer talked about those days in 2014 in an interview with Szabolcs Panyi of Index. “In the spring of 1989, when it wasn’t quite clear which way things would develop, there was only one man in the whole nomenclature of the party-state who put his foot down, even risking his livelihood, and declared that the properties of KISZ and the party must be divided among alternative organizations. This man was Ferenc Gyurcsány. … Gyurcsány proclaimed what many of the opposition politicians didn’t dare: that because of the nature of the state socialist system what they [KISZ and the party] possess belongs to the people.”

Shortly after the dissolution of KISZ, Gyurcsány established a new youth organization called Új Nemzedék Mozgalom (Movement of the New Generation), of which Schiffer became a member. Gyurcsány soon gave up his political activities and became a businessman, but Schiffer remained active and was one of the founding members of a new political movement called Ifjú Szocialisták (Young Socialists). Shortly thereafter, Schiffer retired from politics (for the first time). After finishing law school, he worked for TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he became interested in the green movement.

What changed Schiffer’s attitude toward Gyurcsány, whom he clearly admired back in 1989, were the 2006 disturbances in which he, as an associate of TASZ, took the side of those he considered to be the victims of “police terror.” What happened on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution is a hot potato about which people have widely different opinions. Rightly or wrongly, Schiffer accused Gyurcsány of criminal acts against innocent demonstrators. Hence, his hatred of the man.

His attitude toward Gyurcsány may have changed radically, but he didn’t shed his socialist political views. Árpád W. Tóta, who writes witty, sarcastic, sometime savage opinion pieces, said that LMP has never managed to present a coherent worldview and that “the only concrete position one can make out is a blood-curdling neo-communism. The kind that is becoming sawdust right now in South America.” Tóta portrays Schiffer as someone who wanted to be different simply for the sake of being different. The party was toggling between right and left until it started getting closer to the positions of Fidesz and Jobbik. In brief, in ideological terms Schiffer left the party in a real mess.

Links to Hungarian Spectrum articles on LMP and András Schiffer:

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/26/lmp-or-can-politics-can-be-something-else/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/03/27/two-interviews-with-andras-schiffer-chairman-of-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2010/07/07/viktor-orban-had-a-meeting-with-the-lmp-parliamentary-delegation/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/05/02/babes-in-arms-lmps-encounter-with-viktor-orban/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/07/12/the-new-electoral-law-lmps-wake-up-call/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2011/11/14/a-few-words-about-the-hungarian-green-party-the-lmp/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/01/14/the-rise-and-fall-of-lmps-andras-schiffer/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/07/26/the-future-of-lmp-an-interview-with-benedek-javor/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/10/21/hungarian-opposition-groups-lmp-4k-and-milla/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/17/with-or-without-gordon-bajnai-lmps-dilemma/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2012/11/18/lmps-andras-schiffer-won-but-did-he/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/26/where-is-andras-schiffer-leading-lmp-straight-into-the-arms-of-fidesz/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2013/01/27/lmps-rebels-left-the-party-who-will-be-the-winner-of-this-game/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2014/04/23/budapest-municipal-election-mszp-lmp-deal/

June 1, 2016

The other side of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó: An ardent communist

There is more to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, the presumed future Hungarian ambassador to Italy, than meets the eye. The picture is complete only if we take a look at the man’s career during the Kádár regime, which he was allegedly ready to fight, if necessary with weapon in hand.

Péter Szabó, who changed his name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, was born on January 8, 1945. According to an interview he gave in 2000, his father, Károly Szabó, studied to be a  lawyer but in the 40s worked as a journalist for a “right-wing paper.” “Luckily” the offices of this unnamed newspaper were bombed during the war, and all traces of his father’s association with the paper disappeared. This way “the communists couldn’t molest him,” as the son remarked. What the father did after the war is not clear except that he was “an archaeologist of language” who wrote a book on the relationship between the Hungarian and the Etruscan languages. It was posthumously published by Karpatia Press, which specializes in far-right and wacky books.

As for Péter Szabó’s early life, we have little to go on except what he revealed about himself. When you try to put the story together, however, troubling questions emerge about the truthfulness of the man. The main problem is with his contention that in 1961, while he was a student at the famous Benedictine high school in Pannonhalma, he organized a day of remembrance for the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1956. Consequently, the story goes, he was not only expelled from Pannonhalma but was barred from all Hungarian high schools. He claims that after this incident he was under constant police surveillance and had to work as a manual laborer. He eventually finished high school at night. The problem with this story is that Szabó finished high school in 1963, exactly when he was supposed to. Moreover, he was immediately admitted to ELTE as a Hungarian-English major. It is hard to fathom that the regime was that lenient with someone who a couple of years earlier was barred from every high school in the country.

Szabó came up with the following explanation about his speedy entrance to university. As a third-year high school student he was the national winner of the annual high school literature competition and therefore did not have to take an entrance exam. He “just marched in,” as he said in the interview. That does not ring true either. If Szabó’s story about his expulsion is correct, he spent only two months as a student during the school year of 1961-62, and that is mighty little time to end up the winner of a national competition. And that’s not all. In the same interview he recounted his first meeting with a well-known writer, adding that he was seventeen at the time and “still a student.” The problem is that this had to be in 1962 when, according to his own recounting, he was no longer a student. So much for Péter Szabó’s veracity.

One of Szentmihályi's sciene fictions Visitor from Infinity (1989)

One of Szentmihályi’s science fiction books
Visitor from Infinity (1989)

Szentmihályi Szabó poses as an ardent enemy of communism. In the interview he said that he “as a young man could never understand how people allowed all those things that would happen to us. [He] decided that he would not allow [the communists] to do the same to him and when the time comes [he] will not shirk from taking part in an armed struggle.” He was still a small boy when he cut out the biographies and pictures of “those horrible politicians” from Szabad Nép, the official paper of the communist party during the Rákosi period, because “politics interested him terribly.”

Indeed, it must have interested him because during his university years he joined KISZ (‘Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) and later even became KISZ secretary of the politically important organization Írószövetség (Writers’ Union). In the interview he quickly added that he was removed from the position because of his counterrevolutionary and clerical activities. He also wants us to believe that in 1975 on the hundredth anniversary of Endre Ady’s birth (Ady was actually born in 1877) he declared in a speech that as long as Hungary is occupied by Soviet troops one cannot really speak about Ady’s work. But again, luckily his friends managed to save his skin.

A quick glance at some of the evidence, however, shows a very different Szabó who by that time had changed his rather common name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. In 1969 the editorial board of Új Írás, a literary magazine, sent out a questionnaire to young writers about their attitudes toward socialist Hungary. Szentmihályi Szabó answered, “I’m so glad that I can be a Hungarian here and now in socialism. Very exciting times. An age that poses great challenges.”

Or here is something else from 1973 that came to light only a couple of years ago when the historian György Németh was researching the history of the Attila József Circle, a gathering of young writers and poets in the 1970s.  It is a letter Szentmihályi Szabó wrote to “Dear Uncle Pista”–most likely István Király, the literary historian and an expert on Endre Ady. The letter can be found in the papers of György Aczél, the man responsible for cultural policies throughout the Kádár years. But before I quote the relevant passage, I have to provide some background.

It was in 1973 that Miklós Haraszti, later one of the founders of SZDSZ, who was 28 years old at the time wrote a sociological study of his own experiences as a blue-collar worker in Ganz-Mávag and in the Vörös Csillag Traktorgyár. The manuscript of Darabbér (Piecework) was confiscated by the authorities, and Haraszti had to stand trial: he received a suspended sentence of eight months. The book was eventually translated into eleven languages, but in Hungary it could appear only in 1989. In the “Dear Uncle Pista” letter Szentmihályi Szabó assures the addressee of his devotion to communist ideals, and he is especially angry over those pseudo-leftist rebels (specifically Haraszti) who turned against the Kádár regime. He is outraged because “we know that Haraszti is an enemy of the regime, our enemy.” Oh, yes, these are the words of the great counterrevolutionary Szentmihályi Szabó who would be ready to fight the communists with weapon in hand.

A few years later he wrote a poem that was published in a volume of poetry entitled Dream of the Mind (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977). Here is a rough translation.

Ungraceful Prayer to Communism

Where are you idling, Communism
my happiness, my pure love?
Our happiness, our pure love.
Horn of plenty! The table of the law!
The spiritual light!
Eat, drink, hug, sleep!
Measure yourself with the infinite!
Instead of exclamation marks
question marks falling on us,
I known it is not urgent.
Just like the apocalypse, only
to the prophets:
your unfulfillment
does not cause sorrow to many.
Where are you idling communism?
The productive forces, the relations of productions,
rattling machines,
and the conscience… subconscious
the state does not want to fade away.
Where are you idling communism?
Spring follows Spring,
my children-eyes blink old;
communism, you, promised,
strain your every muscle,
shake off the parasites.
Communism, grow, my little child.

This same man is now the greatest enemy of the “communists,” the liberals, and the Jews. Actually, he would have gladly accepted the socialist system minus the Soviets and their “henchmen.” “To this day I consider socialism more just than this money-centered capitalism without any ideology.”

I would wager to say that Szentmihályi Szabó was a happier man in the 1960s and 1970s than he is today. In fact, he says in the interview that “those who did not live then can’t really understand that period. It was a much more interesting time than today…. Writers could bargain because Hungary was much more important to the West then…. Every word uttered had weight. The West watched what we wrote…. Who is interested today in what a Hungarian writer has to say?” A disappointed man whose discontent has morphed into hatred and who finds scapegoats in communists and Jews (perhaps the two are intertwined in his mind) for his own shortcomings.