The Reconstruction of the Political

2010: What Happened?1

Not long ago, at the close of a televised roundtable conversation, one of the participants, a historian and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, spoke a few words of admonition to me. The histoire des mentalités, he explained, is a history of slow changes at most, which explains why poet Mihály Babits and historian Gyula Szekfû in the thirties were justified in speaking of a distinctive Hungarian character that took form over a long period of time. His exasperation had been caused by my contention that the changes that took place in Hungarian politics in the spring of 2010, the victory of the opposition with a 53 per cent majority, which brought for them 68 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the aggregate, should be attributed in part to a shift in thinking, as well as my reference to the polemics in the press concerning Viktor Orbán’s talk of a revolutionary turn. Given the lack of space in the framework of the present article I will refrain from dwelling in detail on questions of the theory of history, however engaging I may find them, but I would like to offer a word or two concerning the relevance of these questions to what I have to say here. Today historiography attributes considerable significance not only to long-term trends, tendencies, and cycles, but also to short shifts and breaks that may have taken place in the recent past. One would be perfectly justified in making the contention that the passing of one generation into another brings about changes in the development of mentalities, while at the same time it is of course true that slower changes, such as the discovery of childhood as a culturally and psychologically separate phase of human life, or the decisive separation of the family sphere from the life of the community, may well take centuries. Other kinds of changes, however, do not require such long periods of time. In terms of its place in our thinking, 1945, for instance, does not yet belong to the distant past, even if in other respects it does.

One can hardly disagree that the electoral and political volte-face of April 2010 has been met with opposition among some circles, while others consider it the result of a vote of protest, the unusually skillful organization of the victorious parties, and the defeat of the losing parties. And others, more cautious, recommend patience and tell us to wait and see what the changes bring. Obviously the divergences in opinion are expressive of divergences in political conviction and sometimes even different conceptions of the individual and the social. In our many-hued world there are various conflicting views on such questions. And given the diversity of opinion, there is certainly room for the viewpoint according to which at the deepest levels the changes that have taken place constitute not simply a temporary shift, but rather a radical break, or to use Orbán’s term, a revolution.

What, then, took place in Hungary in the early spring of 2010? What memories of the past rose to the surface? What conclusions can one draw on the basis of the great political victory achieved within a framework of democratic institutions by parties that had been in the opposition?

Every history is a history of generations. Some twenty years ago, when at a political rally an angry, agitated woman called on József Antall, the first democratically elected Prime Minister since 1947, to begin with hanging the former Communists, Antall replied with a statement still quoted to this day: “Had you but made a revolution!” It was a different time, and the meanings of the words were different too. The expression “revolution”, for instance, signified the fervour and excitement that – in contrast with the uprising of 1956 against Soviet forces – were missing in 1990, the time of the regime change. How, then, did we arrive at the point where we found ourselves in the spring of 2010, when at the first session of Parliament Viktor Orbán was able to make the bold statement, “the new House is indeed a constitutional National Assembly and a Parliament capable of founding a new system of governance”?

On the nature of the civil war

Over the course of the past twenty years there has been a civil war in Hungary in intellectual and public life. Two Hungaries stood face to face, even if perhaps the participants and the people affected did not understand for a long time where the frontlines had been drawn. The two fierce formations of politics, bristling at each other, were unable to create a genuine sphere of the political, and this had a strong effect on the transformation of mentalities. I would propose that perhaps now, as a consequence of the shift that took place in 2010 this is no longer the case, for the clash of opposing views has lost its intensity, since one of the adversaries, in whose interest it made sense to maintain division, has fallen. Thus an opportunity has arisen for the recreation of the political, which is one of the preconditions of the proper functioning of a democracy.

Twenty-years ago it seemed as if the new situation could be defined in terms of the conflict of the so-called democratic and national opposition, which was proclaiming fundamental change, and the forces that represented the past, the late Kádár era. It seemed as if the latter had lost. The majority of those who found themselves on stage in public life were new to Parliament and various other forums. And while the electorate gazed in wonder, relishing the excitement of new parliamentary elections, a new attitude and comportment came to the fore.

As if by analogy of the parliamentary dynamics, conflict as a peculiar form of behaviour burst into everyday life then and gradually into public life as well, a kind of freedom thought of as particular and previously experienced only in a smothered form within carefully controlled limits, now without any restraints.

It seemed as if the people who had inspired Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) had suddenly appeared in the streets of Hungary in throngs. Hobbes’ famous description of human existence in De Cive as a war of all against all (Bellum omnium contra omnes) suddenly seemed an apt characterization, a state of affairs palpably felt by everyone. “If it’s a fight, let it be a fight. I won’t run from it”, wrote former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, a political warlord dreaming of bloody conflict, who still makes efforts to polarize Hungarian political life, in his blog in June 2010. For years journalists, whether supporters of the left or right, referred to this as “the cold civil war”.

This lamentable attitude, which had a dire influence on public thinking, people’s perceptions, and the very concept of the individual and society, implies that the origins of conflict lie in each of us and conflict itself is the consequence of our natural attributes. Everyone is equal, this is the seemingly innocent point of departure. Yet if this is the case, then is one justified in assuming that anyone is capable of committing a sin in order to promote his or her own interests? According to a typically post-Marxist formula, revolution is the overwriting of law. Consequently, if there is no revolution, one should start one, if for no other reason than to make transgression disappear. Indeed this new form of freedom, coming in the wake of the fall of communism, suggested that with the disappearance of the former regime everything that had come before would also disappear, be forgotten, and come to a close. There had been no mistakes committed by the former regime, no crimes, not even any place for compunction, let alone a pang of guilt. The system was new, the slate was clean.

One of Hobbes’ shrewd insights was that people long for what others crave. The desire for glory drives us and only fear restrains us. Hobbes’ convictions began to seem increasingly prescient in the early 1990s in Hungary. One had to remain suspicious and distrustful of others, for others represent a threat to security. Without adequate reflection we tolerated and even accepted the notion that the state of war, in which everyone fights against everyone, was natural, that we live in a permanent state of jungle warfare. And it followed quite logically from this that people were justified in considering themselves superior to others, for instance someone who thought himself graced with superior “grey material”. It followed that suspicion and distrust were the fundamental point of departure in all human relations, and that the acquisition and maintenance of power were the most fundamental goals. Over the course of the past two decades people of differing views in Hungary were unable to cooperate on even the most basic matters.

Adherents and proponents of jungle warfare were more than happy to denounce their opponents as racists and fling other accusations formulated in the language of political correctness, adopting a simple technique now all too familiar. An opponent was no longer referred to as an opponent, but rather was branded, with reference to an allegedly global concept of correctness, as a threat to peace and stability that fell outside the law. The opposing view was not merely to be defeated, but had to be eradicated without a trace. The way in which this mentality elevated dishonesty, for instance, to a literary embellishment in public discourse may seem a stark illustration of its negative effects, but this is trifling in comparison with the destruction (the decline of respect for human quality, the disappearance of the very notion of character) wrought by the indifference that came to prevail in public life and in government regarding questions of ethics and the common good. This destruction includes dramatic drops in employment rates, the devaluation of the concept of public morals, the ghettoization of Roma communities, and the growth of social rifts that have proven fateful in both the sociological and cultural sense, leaving us with a situation in Hungary today in which a weak state stands face to face with a weak civil society that has lost its bearings.

The “if it’s a fight, let it be a fight” notion represented not only by Gyurcsány (who in the spring of 2011 also famously said “kard, ki kard”, or “swords out”) views the political as the difference between friend and foe. A representative of another viewpoint can only be a foe.2 According to this viewpoint politics can only be irrational, since any rational or sensible dialogue intended to further mutual understanding between opposing groups is seen as impossible from the outset.3 The notion of two Hungaries, which has now become widespread, is destructive because it treats division and political and power struggles as inevitably natural and ultimately fateful questions.

According to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the nation is a “stress unit”. It is comprised of a group of people who are capable of addressing shared problems cooperatively. The nation also appears spontaneously through adherence to traditions. The high voter turnout suggests that this is what happened in Hungary in 2010: stress gave rise to a fundamental shift. Is the war perhaps over? Has the undergrowth in the jungle been cleared?

Perhaps the significance of the political shift that took place in the spring of 2010 lies in the fact that the political was finally able to find form. Politics is the subject of social and political sciences, while the political is the subject of reflection, of thought. Politics refers to the political system as a kind of social subsystem that can be distinguished from other subsystems and made the subject of inquiry in the various social sciences. The political, in contrast, is shared thinking on social phenomena, the process through which society composes itself. The nation comes into being as a stress unit, in other words in the political, and the nation can raise the question, for instance, concerning the nature of the difference between the soft dictatorship of the Kádár era and the post-1990 system.4

Democracy and the political

One can only offer an answer to this question if the intention to understand social reality is founded on an analysis of society as political society. This, however, raises the question where the proper seat of power is in a democracy. The seat of power is the tool or the symbol with the help of which society is capable of grasping its own form and representing the crucial condition of its relationship to its own inner dividedness. Since there has been little consideration of the political over the the past twenty years because of the cold civil war in Hungary, it has become customary to give accounts of Hungarian society solely on the basis of the implements of the political and social sciences, and the division of Hungarian society into two opposing sides has come to be seen as a natural given. Yet the strong tradition of Marxist thinking has played a considerable role in all of this, and the survival of this tradition in habits of thought, or rather this innervation, also hampers the creation of the political.

Marxism, after all, teaches that the units, components and interdependencies of society and their economic and technical mechanisms are all predetermined, existing before we ourselves ever began to reflect on them. The political, however, is a representation of precisely the opposite view. The political expression of a given society makes it possible for forms of human coexistence to arise, interconnections of different social elements to form, and distinctions to be made. And thus the question arises, for instance, concerning the seat of power. We are not speaking of questions of theory, but rather points of reference that are significant for society as a whole and help to promote further thought and reflection, points of reference that have a clear significance. As concepts, these points of reference function to help us grasp the perspectives that provide guidance and create standards as we give form to our visions of society. This is why the political offers a different understanding of the phenomena of politics than the analyses of scholarship and the sciences. And this is why one must again emphasize that the political is the sphere of thought and reflection, while politics remains the subject of the sciences, though of course there is a close connection between thought and scholarship. Naturally in many cases changes in the political overwrite the perspectives and questions of the modern social sciences. It is worth considering some examples.

Following the Second World War, looking back on the horrors of Nazi terror, and challenged by the enormous numbers of victims and the tremendous material destruction, the essential question of the political in Hungary and much of the world over was how such an outrage could ever have come to pass and what lessons were to be learned. Questions concerning the cyclical nature of economic and social movements came to the forefront of the social sciences. The transformation of mentalities and the problems of the rise and fall of economic and demographic growth had not previously been part of scholarly inquiry.5 This created new directions and new areas of study, ranging from sociology and demographics to economics and historiography.

As a further consequence of the shocking changes, in historical thinking the conviction became widespread that history was no longer the great teacher of life, for the lessons of the past had not prepared people for the tragedies and upheavals that had awaited them. After 1945 history could no longer be written as it had been written before.6

Perhaps nothing renders the essence of the political more immediately palpable than the experience of the stark opposition between totalitarian systems and democracies. The fraying and even disintegration of society awakens a sense of isolation, abandonment, and anarchy in people. When democracy is in crisis, the abolition of parliamentary rule and the creation of a new power that expresses the will of the people seem to represent a solution. It has become customary, on such occasions, to refer to the example of the fall of the Weimar Republic. The adherents of the new power, a dictatorial power, make the elected politicians and, furthermore, the members of a particular ethnic or social group seem like people who seek only to serve their own personal interests and satisfy their own personal thirst for power. Under communism, for instance, “bourgeois individualism” and “fat peasant” (or kulak) were two of the most damning labels, and Nazi ideology attacked first and foremost the alleged “cosmopolitan Jew”. Nazi or Communist totalitarianism seizes power and then presents itself as the only democratic representative of the people, indeed the only possible form of democratic representation. Society then is presented by the rulers as a body. This metaphor expresses the unity of the “people” in accordance with the intentions of those who invoke it, in contrast to genuine individualism and its inevitable concomitant, internal social difference and divergence. Under Nazi and then communist rule the reigning forces intended to seize power utterly and keep it permanently.

The sole resemblance between the political in a democracy and the political in a totalitarian dictatorship is the reference to the will of the people as the legitimate source of power. One can hardly confuse those who hold power in a democracy with power itself, if for no other reason (and there are many) than because in a democracy power has no permanent face. Every governing power is elected for a specified period of time, thus no single person or social group can come to embody power permanently, unlike the monarchies and imperial houses of the Middle Ages or the Early Modern Period. There is an unbridgeable distance separating the symbolic powers of democracy and its real powers, in other words those who temporarily exercise power and the seat of power as a guiding principle of the constitution of society. In a symbolic sense the seat of power in a democracy is empty because it cannot be occupied permanently as long as the struggle to fill it is continuous.7 This is why, given its tremendous diversity, one cannot describe democratic society as a body, whereas in the discourse of Communist or extreme right-wing tendencies, which demand total power in the name of the “people”, the metaphor of the national body is natural, as long as they themselves represent the brain in this body.

The Restoration of the political in Hungary

What does the reconstitution of the political mean? Looking back on the past twenty years, under the circumstances we face at the moment, the question of the political today is simply how we assess the division of Hungarian society. This means consideration of how we should regard not only material and social divisions, but also differences in mentality.

With regards to the restoration and reconstitution of the political, the first question that arises is whether or not the pluralist Hungarian society of today can be held together, and if so, how it is different from other pluralist societies. The differences between indicators of wealth and health in some of the more affluent districts in Budapest, which bear comparison with similar indicators in some of Europe’s most prosperous cities, and indicators in poorer districts (such as the eighth) or decayed industrial cities such as Ózd in the North-East represent clear signs of what is meant when we speak of a social split today, as do the dramatic stories of unemployment and the fate of those living in profound poverty, many of whom are members of the Roma minority. Any respectable government must work to reduce these divisions and eventually make them disappear entirely.

In a democracy, however, the political also means that any notion of equality founded on the redistribution of wealth is an illusion, as indeed is the notion of harmony between divergent manners of thinking. Such a form of egalitarian society is not to be sought merely as a matter of principle.

The results of the elections in 2010 (with a voter turnout of 64 per cent, 53 per cent of the voters supported the leading political force, while the opposition was more divided than ever) indicate that the sphere of the political was both in need of restoration and could indeed be restored. While it remains an open question how public life will respond to this demand, two problems should be clarified at the outset. How should we regard the political changes of the past twenty years? And what do we mean when we speak of the relationship between community and society?

The totalitarian dictatorships, the Communist system in Hungary among them, lost all credibility at the time of the changes in 1990, and the mentality to which I referred before, the “libertine liberty” that took wing at the time, not only came to serve as an alibi for extremist positions but also led to a kind of conceptual confusion that made it impossible for the sphere of the political to develop. This mentality took shape in so-called social-liberal organizations and initiatives, such as the creation of the “Demokratikus Charta”, or Democratic Charter, in 1991. This was created against the purported threats to democracy by the Antall government – in true fact as a post-Socialist campaign base for the following elections. This was additionally complicated by the fact that before 1990 the adherents and proponents of this mentality had emphasized the importance of the protection of human rights, and regarding their political strategy sought, with the help and support of the Left in the West, to maintain an allegedly reformed version of the Kádár system. They essentially rejected the initiatives of the pre-1990 opposition, the so-called national wing, and demonstrated an unambiguous aversion to its representatives and refused to work together with them in defence of communal and minority rights, an issue entirely foreign to their concept of the political.8 They were in fact no better prepared for the changes of 1989–90 than the national wing.

After the elections of 1990, in a curious manner, the Hungarian “Liberals” became natural allies of the Socialists, the successors of the former ruling Communist party. This development, in part because of the radicalism of the Liberals regarding human rights, led to a strange amalgam of views in their political strategy, which complicated and confused the organic process in Hungarian society of breaking with the past and calling responsible actors of the previous regime to account after 1990. From the perspective of the reconstitution of the political one should also note that in appropriating the term “liberalism,” they drastically narrowed its meaning and made it quite one-sided, essentially eliminating from public discourse any aspects of the tradition of Hungarian liberalism (which stretches back well over a century) that did not conform with their hyperbolic interpretation. These grave self-contradictions inflamed tensions in public life and contributed significantly to the further weakening of the relationship between the state and the civil society.9

In April 2010 this confusion in attitude, comportment, and mentality became both obvious and unacceptable for the great majority of the electorate. It is worth pondering the contention that many of the voters voted against something rather than for something and the losing coalition, referred to as Left-wing Liberal but in fact a makeshift alliance of forces with neither intellectual nor moral centre, simply lost the election as a consequence of its unbridled greed and lack of credibility. In the end, whether we bore witness to a great victory or a great defeat will remain a question of viewpoint.

Perhaps the more significant lesson to be drawn is how the crushing losses that Hungarian society endured during eight years and the wrongs that were wrought, including rampant corruption, the lack of solidarity, the waste of public monies, indifference to innumerable social problems, the inability of the state to address the crises, police terror against civilians, etc., mobilized people to form a “stress-unit”. This all points in one direction, towards the demand for and reflection on the nature of community. The reconstitution of the political is inconceivable without thorough consideration of communal frameworks.

In short, the political is impossible without the communal.

Marxist thinking, which continues to exert influence in Hungary, sets society and community in opposition to each other.10 Yet circumstances seem to belie this, not least of all because precisely in a democracy one sees how untenable the opposition itself really is. The family and religious or other forms of community in the end constitute intellectual and spiritual relationships and models that organize the constituent parts of any organism. Society is not in opposition to these communities, but rather forms an exterior world around them in which the wills of individuals sometimes clash, for instance in business relations, in other organizations or under the influence of some exterior force.

Sometimes something can permeate even this exterior envelopment, something that can be considered a timeless unity, even tradition or culture, for in its traditions and its culture society is capable of uniting its past and its visions of the future, however varied. Many people experience or interpret the communal features of a society as the nation and a community of fate shared by the multitudes. They see the nation as a constituent part of the political and a form of common parlance concerning community of fate that the members of this community regard as an existing whole. Precisely for this reason community and society are two forms that are not mutually exclusive, and they form a loose unity even when they are in conflict with each other. One of the essential aspects of the political in Hungary today is that the nation, as a community of fate, cannot subsume all of society, while at the same time society, characterized above as a kind of external envelopment, cannot become absolute, which is to say it cannot exist without its constituent communities.

As a consequence of the shift that took place in the spring of 2010, Hungarian society can finally settle into a natural, two-layered unity comprised of communities both great and small formed on the basis of instinctive and spontaneous human interaction, and the social fabric woven of more deliberate, objectively rational relations. Together these constitute the substance of community and external social relations. Thus the political can be both the stage and the agent in the creation of the interdependency and coherence of nation, democracy, and society.

Politics and the political

According to essayist and former centre righ politician Ferenc Kulin, the most unusual aspect of the political processes of the spring of 2010 was “the quality of the organization of the majority”. Until then, Kulin continues, it had not been evident that there was a centre to Hungarian political space, because right-wing and left-wing extremes also sought to occupy the middle field, and thus their shadows fell on it, too. It took the deepening social crisis of the mid- and late 2000s, the threat of public bankruptcy, and moral collapse to break up the left-wing liberal alliance of interests, while on the other end of the spectrum a political force appeared, the Jobbik party (which means “the right one” or “the better one”), that claimed to represent “the rightful demand for security of hundreds of thousands living in deep poverty and outcast from the communal order on the principle of the market”. The extreme Right Jobbik constitutes a force the mere existence of which threatens the constitutional framework of democracy in Hungary.11 On the basis of the rhetoric of the two parties that now constitute the relatively weak extremes of the opposition in the new Hungarian Parliament, one can characterize one as an extreme left-wing party that demands democracy free of any trace of the nation and the other as an extreme right-wing party that would prefer to see politics transformed into the embodiment of a nation without democracy.12

In contrast, the ruling coalition, which constitutes a solid two-thirds majority, represents a concordance of nation and democracy.13 Regarding the unusual decisiveness of this majority, one should not fail to note that the goal of the electoral campaign of the ruling coalition parties before the election was to prevent the acquisition by the parties in opposition of a two-thirds majority. The results of the election constitute a resounding close to the era of the cold civil war. The attainment of victories in 174 of 176 electoral districts – that is, almost all of Parliament’s locally winnable seats – is eloquent expression of this. Indeed it could well be interpreted to suggest that not only did people vote for – and not simply against – something, but having had their attention called to the potential significance of a decisive electoral victory, they quite deliberately voted to ensure that the parties that had been in opposition did acquire at least a two-thirds majority.

Taking all this into consideration, “national cooperation”, “national unity”, “national accordance”, and more recently “national centre” appear to have been particularly significant objectives. Viktor Orbán as the new Prime Minister caused considerable agitation when he expressed his conviction on several occasions that what had taken place represented a revolution, or perhaps even more than a revolution.

Compared with the customary phrases and locutions of political argument, it is quite clear that whether he realized it or not, in using this term Orbán gestured towards the reconstitution of the sphere of the political. The initiatives that have been adopted have created an unusual situation, because the new ruling coalition has been able to attain something through the available political tools that in the future will unite and exist above the political factions of the moment. Given its broad mandate, it has been able to draft a new Constitution that represents a new institutional foundation and clearly delineates the framework for a form of government that unites both the concept of the nation and pluralist democracy. Political debates now take place in an environment that is full of life and open to difference of opinion. Thus finally everything related to the common good, public ethics, and the complex understandings of these terms has been able to find its proper place.

In light of all this, the so-called “Program for National Cooperation” can be considered an expression of a specific political stance.14 It is oriented around the notion of the community, which now can be reborn through increasingly vigorous social cooperation. It is based on unity, the restoration of balance between rights and responsibilities, and the common will of the Hungarian nation, and its foundation is work, the home, the family, health, and order.15 The attainment by the parties formerly in opposition of a sufficient majority to pass a new Constitution represents a political message on the basis of which it seems quite natural to contend that what took place in April 2010 in Hungary was a revolution. Naturally one is not speaking of a revolution along the lines of the traditional Hegelian–Marxist interpretation, for the familiar formula, according to which a social formation characterized as more developed triumphs over a social formation seen as less developed, hardly fits. Nor should it be seen as an attempt at a post-Marxist revolution. Indeed it had nothing to do with the kinds of seizures of power that these interpretations all imply. It was the restoration of the process of regime change that had been derailed and left unfinished. New governance began that had to build on the existing democratic institutions, while at the same time, with the transfer of power, the initiatives and acts collectively represented a clear shift in comparison with the initiatives of the previous government.

One of the peculiarities of this unusual political situation was that its significance went well beyond the circumstances of the moment. Political forces had to prepare themselves to reconstitute democracy and the nation. The absurdity of the situation was that the ruling coalition had to represent right-wing, left-wing, and liberal values, since the alleged representatives of the latter two had suffered an electoral defeat so utter that they had essentially vanished from the stage.

Yet as noted before, in a democracy the seat of power is always empty. This emptiness is best understood in comparison with other systems, monarchies or dictatorships, in which the seat of power is occupied by the anointed ruler or the ruthless autocrat. National cooperation and the call for the new Constitution in 2010 were part of a democratic concept of the political.

The question of democratic power is how the sovereign will of the people, which is the source of power, is manifested. The “will of the people” may well be sovereign, but there is no individual, group, or social class that could claim to represent or embody it. Given their very plurality, the people, the nation, and the state are nodes in our consciousness that in the realm of the political constitute points of reference and orientation as we attempt to situate ourselves in the social space. Indeed it is the political that enables us to discern and depict the interconnections between them. In a democracy politicians can leave a legacy behind them, but they cannot become symbols of power as long as they are active participants in political struggles.

This is why one is justified in contending that the victorious political forces are undertaking something unusual when they seek to restore both nation and democracy to the political in Hungary. This undertaking involves the reconstitution of a notion of the political that applies to the whole of Hungarian society, which is not necessarily identical with the Hungarian nation. Indeed it is worth noting that this casts the essence of the shift that has taken place in a new light. A new situation arises. The opposition between community and society and everything it seemed to express in the past finally becomes utterly devoid of meaning. It suffices to cite the example of how the Communist system “socialized” – in fact destroyed – the vibrant communities of the Hungarian village in the 1960s as a means of enforcing this view politically. Attachment to community does not divide society, but rather pervades it. This is why someone who disputes or objects to the prevalent view concerning the essence of the nation is not a traitor or outcast, even if the often vehement debates concerning the nation are strange or distant to him, for looser bonds still remain connecting him to Hungarian political thought and the Hungarian political body.

The most important precondition of a notion of the political that is characterized by recognition of the place of community is that: in contrast with the situation during the cold civil war, it must build on shared convictions that are of general validity. These convictions can permeate everything, from ethics to economics or politics to religious persuasion, and the majority of people accept them and ultimately regard them as natural laws. They include, for instance, respect for the dignity of the individual. The consequences of the events of the fall of 2006, when the police responded with extreme measures to the actions of protesters following shocking revelations of government corruption, clearly demonstrate the significance these events now have for the population of the country, the voters. Similarly significant is the principle according to which in a democracy the losing party should not be regarded as vanquished, a principle that entails acceptance of the opposition.

None of the contentions made here represents a strikingly new insight. One might consider, for instance, the observation made by historian István Bibó in 1948: “one cannot lie in politics. … one cannot build political constructions and political programmes on lies.”16 But equally relevant to the historical situatedness of the political as it developed out of the peculiar circumstances in Hungary are Bibó’s comments in the same essay concerning the lessons and contradictions of the history of the construction of community in Hungary. The Hungarian nation was unable to assimilate itself into the currents of communal life because it attempted to do so precisely at the time when forms of community in Hungary were disintegrating. I remain convinced that a new form of communal thinking can still overcome what Bibó viewed as sentimental and irrational. His insight on possible communities has lost none of its persuasiveness or relevance: “there are clear and definite customs and formulas concerning how to pronounce words, express thanks, court someone’s favour, preside as chairperson, take compensation, hold an assembly, and compete with others”.17

The assertion of this and similar principles and claims in the political also signifies that the political contentions and rivalries, the origins of which lie in divergences in conviction and the resulting vehement debates, are taking place within the unity of the political. The demand for responsibility and independence cannot be interpreted within any other framework, for both notions imply that one knows what one is doing and one is capable of assessing the consequences and risks of one’s actions, as well as the eventual conflicts they may cause. Responsibility means respect for the law. But even in the broadest possible interpretation of the political there must be some agreement that both responsibility and independence represent solidarity with others, others whom it would hardly be right to berate or rebuke before an unfamiliar audience, for instance, regardless of how vehement the debates might be at home.18

In the end, in the wake of the shift to which Hungarian society bore witness in the spring of 2010 the utter failure and bankruptcy of the view of the human that had prevailed (a vision of an atomized mass society based on the belief in the omnipotence of inevitable laws, structures, systems, and functions that rule over humankind) have become apparent and worthy of condemnation. In public life today it is still considered natural to be a shameless megalomaniac. This is seen as little more than being original. But when public life turns away in disgust from such spectacles of vanity, a new mentality is coming to life, emerging from the notion of the political still under construction.

Translation by Thomas Cooper


1 This article is based on a presentation I held at a conference on 30 May, 2010. I was at that time of course unable to take the results of the local government elections into consideration, which in fact brought a similar sweeping victory for the governing parties.

2 Schmitt, Carl: Der Begriff des Politischen. Munich, 1927. There is something a bit depressing in the fact that the factions and groups in Hungary that spread alarm by warning of the dangers of fascism allegedly represented by the right-wing adopt the Feind/Freund concept of the great philosopher who after 1945 was accused in his homeland of collaboration with the Nazis.

3 On the cold civil war and the divergences in viewpoints see Mi fenyegeti a köztársaságot (“What threatens the Republic?” Budapest, Eötvös Károly Intézet, 2009).

4 The notion of two Hungaries does not denote two versions of the political, but rather an irresolvable tooth and nail dispute over whether a fundamental shift and break with the Kádár era took place in 1990 or a peaceful transition, with all the inevitable consequences in political and public life.

5 Kondratieff, Nikolai D.: Die langen Wellen der Konjunktur. Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. 1926. Vol. 56. No. 3. pp. 573-609, l. Economists and historians discovered this work after the Second World War. Other notable examples include: Rostow, Walt: The Stages of Economic Growth (1960, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press); and Meuvret, Jean: Les crises de subsistances et la démographie historique de la France d’Ancien Régime. Population (1946. No. 4. pp. 643-656, l).

6 See Granasztói, György: Elméletek és történetek (“Theories and happenings,” Korall. 2009. Vol. 10. No. 35. pp. 190-205, l).

7 In my interpretation of the political up to this point I have followed the interpretation of Claude Lefort. See Lefort, Claude: L’Invention démocratique. Les limites de la domination totalitaire (Paris, Fayard, 1981) and Lefort, Claude: Essais sur le politique. 19-20e siècles (Paris, Seuil, 1986). See also Flynn, Bernard: The Philosophy of Claude Lefort: Interpreting the Political (Northwestern University Press, 2005, 394 pp).

8 A typical case was the attack in the Budapest diary by Hans Magnus Enzensberger against Sándor Csoóri and the populist tendency. It was printed as a Samizdat publication in the 1980s and caused considerable stir. (Magyar zavarosságok és más esszék. Trans. Gadó György és Scardanelli. Ed. Haraszti Miklós. Budapest, AB Független kiadó, 1986). Also see Ó Európa (Budapest, Európa Kiadó, 1992).

9 See Granasztói, György: Demokrácia és nemzet. Magyarország ma és holnap (“Democracy and nation. Hungary today and tomorrow,” Budapest, Magyar Szemle Könyvek, 2007. 81-134, l) and Granasztói, György: Görbülõ tükör (“Curved mirror,” Magyar Szemle, 2009. August. Vol. 18. No. 7-8 pp. 45-75, l). Incidentally I also see the so-called taxi blockade of Octorber 1990 as the first episode in the outbreak of the cold civil war.

10 One of the places in which this viewpoint found expression was the influential work by Ferdinand Tönnies: Közösség és társadalom (“Community and society”, Budapest, FOK-TA Bt. 2004, originally published in 1887).

11 Kulin, Ferenc: Gyõzelem (“Victory,” Magyar Szemle, Vol. 19. No. 5-6. 2010. June. Pp. 3-7, 1).

12 The ideological stance of the supporters of Lehet Más a Politika (“Politics Can be Different”, a relatively young political party in Hungary) has become fairly clear. If its adherents eschew the example set by the failed ultraliberal camp in Hungary and turn back to the classic principles of Montesquieu there is yet a chance that the Hungarian liberal tradition can be rekindled and the notion of community restored to liberal political thought in Hungary.

13 I offer a detailed analysis of the relationship between democracy and nation in Demokrácia és nemzet. Magyarország ma és holnap (see footnote 9).

14 The first part of the 85 page document, A Nemzeti Együttmûködés Nyilatkozata (“Declaration of National Cooperation”) summarizes the fundamental principles of the system of cooperation and the sections addressing national issues. (http://www.parlament.hu/irom39/00047/00047.pdf)

15 “The Hungarian electorate has sent all of us a message that the national unity is right, the task of the victors is to defend and represent the national unity and the soundness of its vision, and triumph over any phenomenon, force, or striving that turns against the national unity and threatens it. This message determines the programme that I seek to carry into effect, consequentially and without compromise, as Prime Minister.”

16 Bibó, István: Eltorzult magyar alkat, zsákutcás magyar történelem (“Disfigured Hungarian frame, dead-end Hungarian history,” Válogatott tanulmányok. Vol. 2. Budapest, Magvetõ Kiadó, 1986, p. 590).

17 Ibid., p. 616.

18 In his time Benjamin Franklin expressed the same idea with his contention that however ferociously the American citizen may pursue a debate at home, when abroad he must speak up in defense of his homeland. Today in Hungary this has been turned on its head, as clearly illustrated by the campaigns that were launched in the months before the assumption by Hungary of the European Union presidency. One could consult, for example, the comments printed online on September 12th, 2010 at Index.hu (http://index.hu/belfold/2010/09/11/goncz_kinga_brusszelben_mar_felmerult_alkalmas-e_magyarorszag_az_eu-elnoksegre/).

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