Socialism and Freedom

G. M. Tamás

Marxist intellectual G.M. Tamás on Syriza, post-fascist authoritarianism, and the nostalgia for state socialism.

Members of the New Hungarian Guard line up at a Jobbik assembly last year.

Interview by
Andrew Ryder

For the past five years, Hungary has been governed by Fidesz, a right-wing nationalist party. Fidesz, led by Viktór Orbán, has held a two-thirds majority, allowing it to modify the constitution and other major laws, and exercise control over major media outlets.

However, there were a series of scandals last year, as well as a series of major protests, that call into question its popular support. In February, the party lost its supermajority, leaving the political future of the country uncertain. Fidesz’s competitors are the Hungarian Socialist Party, which despite its name is neoliberal and pro-free market in orientation, and Jobbik, an extreme-right organization that many commentators view as the successor to fascist formations.

G. M. Tamás is the most prominent Hungarian left-wing public intellectual. After participating in the Hungarian Parliament as a representative of the liberal Free Democratic Alliance from 1989–94, he embraced Marxism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. His essays include “On Post-Fascism” and “Telling the Truth about Class.

He presently teaches in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Central European University. He was interviewed for Jacobin by Andrew Ryder, a visiting lecturer of gender studies at the same university.

Andrew Ryder

In “Telling the Truth About Class,” you describe the dissolution of the Rousseauian notion of the people, and argue that this can only be replaced by a more rigorously Marxist notion of class. However, movements worldwide that oppose mainstream capitalist institutions and policies often appear to take recourse to nationalism or other formulations of the popular. What are your thoughts on the term “populism”?

G. M. Tamás

This is caused by two main factors. “Class” has been identified in the modern tradition with “class as a political subject.” In Central Europe a hundred and twenty years ago, “socialism” meant in the press, simply, “the proletariat, the working class,” and vice versa.

The workers’ movement was internationalist, as it was also opposed to property, to the state, to the family, to the Church, to the army, to corrective justice, and so on in the revolutionary manner. The tone of the most humdrum trade union meeting then would astonish the boldest ultra-left vanguard groupuscule today.

The movement was destroyed by social democracy and Stalinism, precisely because they have abandoned the idea of communism and created two versions of planned state capitalism, quite egalitarian and plebeian, and have weakened or obliterated altogether the political class rule of the old bourgeoisie, but did not (or could not do) anything about the separation of the means of production (means of subsistence) from the producers. Commodity production and wage labor continued unabated.

The official communist parties had become nationalist already in the Popular Front period (in the 1930s) and remained so until the discomfiture of the traditional left in 1989. The proletariat exists, as it were, “objectively,” but it has vanished “subjectively” — that is, politically.

Second, cross-class solidarity against hegemonic powers is nothing new, it has always been implicit in revolutions (even October was in part a peasant jacquerie and an anti-war uprising — no pure workers’ commune — and it was consolidated after a brief war against Western interventionist armies) and especially in anti-imperialist struggles.

“Populism,” particularly its egalitarian, “left” variety, is nothing else but an alliance of different classes and groups against hegemonic elites or powers perceived as such, and I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world — on the contrary.

But this, too, shows that we haven’t leapt over the threshold of “socialist revolution” yet. These movements are aiming at economic and social equality, at an equality of dignity, at true popular sovereignty, at national independence, things traditionally believed by Marxists to be bourgeois in character, as they are not addressing the substance, the deep structure of capitalism.

An authentic bourgeois democracy — if there is such — could cure the ills which populists are taking exception to. And it might. We should support, critically and selectively, such movements, as we are on the side of the oppressed, but it would be a great mistake to believe that they have much to do with socialism. We are supposed to be internationalist, not anti-Western, even if the nationalism of the downtrodden is morally superior to the chauvinism of the rich.

Andrew Ryder

You have distinguished yourself as a vocal supporter of Syriza. How do you view the controversy regarding some of their more pragmatic decisions? For example, their governing coalition with the Independent Greeks (ANEL).

G. M. Tamás

Well, exactly. The Syriza people, learned Marxists all, did not (or could not) envisage the demolition of capitalism to begin with. This is a very noble and very courageous attempt to improve the material circumstances of the working classes, of the unemployed, and of the miserable underclass through moderate reforms which — in this profoundly reactionary period — appear as unspeakably radical to mainstream opinion. (They are rather less radical then Roosevelt’s New Deal had been. But Roosevelt, too, was called a communist back then by his opponents.)

I have criticized Syriza for their choice of a coalition partner, but we must understand that they had to have an ally who was reliable in their conflict with the European Union. (I don’t think that their fling with Russia is very important — it’s no more than a little tactical blackmail).

Their politics is, if I may say so, Jacobin. It is a combination of classical republicanism — strict political equality (with more power to the lower classes than they had before) — and of social egalitarianism. This means that “the people” reappears in the foreground like in the eighteenth century.

But of course this would also mean “equality between nations,” “friendship between peoples,” and “world peace”— distinctly unfashionable sayings, but implicit in so-called progressive thinking from the Enlightenment to the anti-imperialist thrust of the October Revolution to “the Sixties” and beyond.

The whipped-up antipathy towards “lazy Greeks” and immigrants or towards “authoritarian Russians” or “bigoted Muslims” may create a sense of belonging and togetherness that makes it easier to back the system — as it appears that one’s wellbeing is threatened by outsiders and not by class society. It’s an old old story, but it works a treat.

In such circumstances, people tend to forget that the outsourcing of Western industries to Eastern Europe — capital chasing lower wages (and migrant workers chasing higher ones) — which makes Western workers angry that their Eastern counterparts are stealing their jobs and Eastern workers even angrier because they have to perform the same work for half the Western salary, is detrimental to all and that they should demand a common European minimum wage (meaning of course real wages) instead.

The internationalism of capital is not countered by an internationalism of labour; there you have the reason for “populism” in a nutshell. Bourgeois egalitarianism stops at the boundaries of the nation-states, but capital doesn’t. This is why Western and Central European social democracy won’t support Syriza.

Andrew Ryder

What are the prospects for a revival of the revolutionary left in Eastern European post-socialist countries? Are movements in Hungary, for example, likely to take inspiration from Greece?

G. M. Tamás

Those prospects are nil, and there are no such movements, nor are they likely to materialize any time soon. The underlying causes are numerous, subtle, and usually ignored. I shall name only one of them.

One must understand that the post-Stalinist phase (or post-1956: this was the year of the Twentieth Congress of the PCUS with Krushchev’s “secret speech” unmasking Stalin’s terror, and the year of the Hungarian revolution) of planned state capitalism was a version of the welfare state.

With rising living standards, full employment, enormous construction of social housing (huge “council estates”), cheap public transport, expanding education, free health services, high culture for everybody, free popular media, easing censorship, increasingly permissive lifestyles, manipulative popular media, and the years of la grande bouffe, as people were eating well (and a lot) for the first time since the war.

“Class” discourse was interrupted, “peaceful coexistence” had replaced anticapitalist military readiness, “national unity” and popular entertainment from spectator sports to soupy pop music and operetta with deep cleavages had replaced proletarian dictatorship. (All this was resisted by Mao and Maoists.)

This is being remembered as “real socialism,” maybe with nostalgia — it was, after all, a safe, peaceful, consumerist half-paradise of an extremely conservative cast and with a genuine cultural respect for the plebeian, for the “working man” with his needs for anglers’ weekends and for the little car and for the soccer match — but definitely as a thing of the past.

In spite of spurious theories of “totalitarianism,” the economic and social policies of the “democratic” Western left and of post-Stalinist dictatorships were more similar than those of these latter and those of the right-wing military dictatorships in the Western hemisphere. The class truce of welfarism obtained in both systems of the Left, in spite of the considerable political differences and in spite of the undeniable and unpalatable legal and political facts of Eastern Bloc “soft tyrannies,” discretely and tactfully supported with credits by Western finance. (Can you recall Willy Brandt’s, Herbert Wehner’s, and Helmut Schmidt’s Ostpolitik?)

So, “socialism” — traditionally, always a thing of the radiant future — appears in this region as old and dead as Assyria and Babylon, and the satisfaction of needs (the hope for an end to misery and suffering) is linked to unfreedom in the popular imagination here. This would compromise both freedom and happiness, the first associated with chaos and poverty, the second with servility and humiliation.

As an East European Marxist, I am either suspected of sweet naïveté or of being a sort of undercover intellectual terrorist. Or both. Not that it matters; what matters is that hope seems to be outlawed in these ex-Soviet type societies — with the concomitant social and political pathologies.

Andrew Ryder

The insights in your essay on post-fascism were formulated fifteen years ago. What do you think about the concept of post-fascism today? Have any of its characteristics changed notably?

G. M. Tamás

No, not really, they haven’t changed much. But they might need to be reformulated in a more straightforward manner. The role of “classical” fascism as a preventive counter-revolution is diluted today in the absence of a communist threat.

We must keep in mind that the main intrinsic problem of capitalism — equality — is not addressed directly by Marxism (but it was by both social-democratic and Bolshevik parties, which shows how they have stayed within the bourgeois horizon) as it attempted to analyze asunder alienated labor and commodity fetishism. “Equality” is quite meaningless in a communist society devoid of exploitation, oppression, domination, and any kind of hierarchy; there it would be just a consequence of much more deeper transformations.

Fascism on the other hand, firmly ensconced in intra-capitalist relations, wanted — and still wants — to solve the riddle of the contradiction between equality before the law (implying individual autonomy) and economic, social, and gender inequality (the perennial source of inner-capitalist political tensions) by radically obliterating the former, based of course on the supremacy of Aryan white men embodied by a warrior caste rejuvenating a tired-out, decadent culture weakened by what they say is relativism and skepticism, unprincipled tolerance, an effeminate view of the social problematic, and by the nefarious influence of parasitic races and rootless, nihilistic rebels (such as ourselves).

Discipline, commitment, healthy athleticism, military virtue, respect for tradition and for authority, for a spurious mos maiorum, a preference for action over meditation and theory — all serve to reinforce a hierarchy for which no philosophical arguments are offered. The old soldiers’ saw, Maul halten und weiter dienen — shut up and serve — should be the motto of heroes. In contemporary post-fascism, these elements are scattered, the outward forms of bourgeois democracy are not under attack, but they are there, influencing the ways of thinking of the ruling elites everywhere.

The Enlightenment idea of universal citizenship — every person is a politically endowed citizen with equal rights with no regard to his or her origins or status — is terminally undermined. Real citizenship exists only in wealthy white, Western states, and only for well-established and well-settled, essentially male groups. The rest are seen as a dark mass of scary and alien human material, kept in line by extreme violence. The political condition, that is, citizenship, remains an elusive privilege, which makes a total mockery of so-called liberal democracy.

Post-fascism is not different from “classical” fascism in always re-establishing compromised hierarchies by war. And not any old kind of war: we’re speaking of a war aiming at dislocating and/or disciplining populations rather than simply aiming at territorial or economic gain.

Andrew Ryder

Could you speak about the enduring appeal of what you’ve called “ethnicism”?

G. M. Tamás

Ethnicism is something rather new. It is the successor of nationalism and its adversary. Nationalism refers to the state (even what used to be called, erroneously, “cultural nationalism”). Its main strategy has been the homogenization of ethnic and denominational groups within a given nation-state by forced or voluntary assimilation, offering instead the ability to participate in the life of the main political community, adopting the hegemonic language, culture, identification with a constructed national tradition and the like.

Minority languages have been seen as reactionary — les patois contre-révolutionnaires, said Saint-Just (“counter-revolutionary dialects”), of course, the langue d’oc was a dialect (or patois), but French. (The English have thought — and perhaps still think — in the same way about Gaelic.)

But in late capitalism with the obsolescent nation-states there is no compelling universalist reason for various ethnic groups to stay together. From Kosovo to East Ukraine to Catalonia to Scotland to Québec, the supra-ethnic nation-state is in deep trouble. The supra-ethnic integration of bourgeois democratic political communities is hopeless.

No “ethnic Hungarian” in Transylvania — my own ethnicity — would dream of considering himself or herself a Romanian. (By the way, this is Nazi terminology: “ethnic German” has been the translation of volksdeutsch.) No one seems to be able to conceive of a supra-ethnic, Jewish and Arab, Israel. And so on.

Global market capitalism and bourgeois nation-states are falling apart, but there is no alternative. Although we should be wary of superficial historical parallels, this is strikingly similar to the demise of the Roman Empire, replaced by what the Vulgate calls gentes — recalcitrant, heathen tribes or ethnicities — in a genocidal chaos and barbarism.

Ethnic groups try to found new polities away from universalist, conceptual arrangements, want to find a non-political, racial and cultural togetherness which might bring forth a genuine political community grounded in something pre-political, non-artificial, where divisive class politics and abstract cultural hegemony of the strong (usually ethnic majorities and their ruling strata) will end. It is as romantic as old nationalism was, but without the Enlightenment elements of civic liberation.

Andrew Ryder

A number of European parties have propagated rhetoric that demonizes immigrants. This has accelerated in France, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Do you think the tendency toward national chauvinism is likely to prove durable? Do you see a distinction between Western and Eastern forms of ethnicism?

G. M. Tamás

The distinction, if any, is minor. And I don’t think this is “national chauvinism.” That kind of thing is quite dead. Old-time French-German or Hungarian-Romanian enmity is quite unimportant. The enemies are Muslim immigrants or, in Eastern Europe, Gypsies. Minorities. Darkies.

Ethnicism and post-fascism go here hand in hand. And they have poisoned large sections of the traditional left. Exactly as nationalism has poisoned social democracy (see August 1914) and Bolshevism in the age of “socialism in one country” and in the Popular Front period. It is quite disappointing how the world peace idea of the October Revolution is misunderstood or forgotten. Internationalism was what distinguished Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky from social democracy.

Railing against the racism of the white ruling class, however justified morally (I am doing it, too, in my militant journalism here, what else) is not enough. Ethnicist resistance to the bourgeois nation-state is one thing, socialist hostility to all states representing domination and repressive integration, another.

Andrew Ryder

Last year, the Hungarian police produced an outrageous video that placed responsibility for sexual assault on the victims themselves. How do you see the role of gender in post-fascist ideology? Is a broad transformation of gender stereotypes likely to take place in Europe, or will we see further retrenchment of reactionary notions?

G. M. Tamás

This is difficult to predict. But see how feminist ideas are invoked by people who otherwise won’t give a toss about women’s rights against traditionalist Muslims. At the same time, frankly, East European countries are quite backward and arch-conservative — misogyny and homophobia are rampant here. As the universally successful propaganda against “political correctness” (a moralistic regimen against racist, sexist, ageist, etc. ugly talk) shows, the worldview of hierarchy (racial, patriarchal, and other) is still (or again) dominant.

Hungary is no less anti-semitic today, for example, than it was in the 1930s. The hatred and contempt for feminism shows better than anything the agony of egalitarian energies in the moribund bourgeois regimes which are looking for a post-fascist authoritarianism as their salvation.

Andrew Ryder

Political problems in Hungary have been framed in terms of corruption. It’s common to view the political difficulty as largely moral, with Viktor Orbán portrayed as mad or simply criminal. Do you see any validity to this approach, or is it a kind of moralistic distortion of a political problem?

G. M. Tamás

This is indeed puerile. Orbán is no madder than [former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi or [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. He is quite adroitly combining anti-neoliberal “statist” talk with the neoliberal practice of low taxes, incentives for entrepreneurs, and of the unprecedentedly brutal destruction of social assistance. Nothing very original there.

Andrew Ryder

Ágnes Gagyi writes of “new postsocialist elites” that “stabilized into two competing blocs of political-economic networks.” She says that “both blocs played the role of connecting the Hungarian economy to the capitalist world system in a dependent position, and drawing some profit from it for themselves.”

However, they held competing ideologies: “in the first bloc, the uncritical embracement of Euro-Atlantic integration, and in the second bloc, a nationalist critique of Euro-Atlantic power, connected to the requirement of a strong state to resist international capital and make space for national bourgeois interests.”

Do you agree that this is the determining contradiction in Hungarian politics, even today? For example, in the recent wave of demonstrations, protestors have often idealized the European Union.

G. M. Tamás

Ágnes Gagyi has a point, but the differences between the “pro-Western” and “anti-Western” blocs — in spite of their very deep mutual hatred — are less important than they might seem. The resistance of Orbán and his clique against international capital is a joke. He wants simply to attract foreign investments which would not interfere with his domestic policy of smashing the constitutional system and civil liberties and to keep a room of maneuver, a rather natural tendency in a strong authoritarian boss.

Also, the glorification of German-accented EU “normalcy” by so-called Hungarian liberals is pretty feeble. Meanwhile, the neo-fascist Jobbik party is getting stronger every day. Now it has the second-largest voters’ bloc; national conservatives and “European” liberals are looking on like sheep.

Andrew Ryder

The notion of “self-colonization” in Eastern Europe has received some attention lately, through the work of Alexander Kiossev (although the term was used much earlier, by László Németh). Do you find this concept useful in understanding the history or present situation in the region?

G. M. Tamás

I don’t know Alexander Kiossev, alas, but I’ve been using this polemical term myself on occasion. It’s merely a metaphor. There is a profound self-hatred in East European nations, the sense of being left behind, neglected, unsuccessful, of being abandoned losers. The solution, for some, appears to be an uncritical acceptance of a fictitious, idealized West and a humble acceptance of its lead.

Among some “liberals” democracy equals masochistic servility towards the Western powers, sometimes in an unselfish, ideological fashion, independent of legitimate local interest. This is very sad.

And it is equally sad to see that the ethnicists (“national conservatives,” so called) would despise anything emancipatory — they are mixing up neoliberalism with human rights, feminism, gay liberation, anti-racism, and anti-fascism, ridiculous as this may sound to someone familiar with North American or West European politics — as “foreign” or as maybe “Jewish.” It’s an unholy mess.

Andrew Ryder

Given that Fidesz’s popularity has declined significantly, do you see an organized opposition taking shape? Is this likely to work to the benefit of Jobbik?

G. M. Tamás


Andrew Ryder

What are your memories of the state socialist system? Could you discuss misconceptions about the Kádár era?

G. M. Tamás

As you know, I was a dissident and an adversary of “real socialism,” which I wouldn’t consider to have been “socialist” even by the widest stretch of the imagination. I don’t regret having resisted it, although this stance has gradually led me astray in many respects. I have lived through two versions of the regime in Romania and in Hungary.

The Kádár régime — and, to a lesser extent, its fellow systems everywhere in the Soviet bloc plus Yugoslavia — was, like the rest, a planned, bureaucratic state capitalism (and not “socialism”) which came after semi-feudalism, fascism, war, the Holocaust, and Stalinism. It brought — after a while — reconciliation, inner peace, growth, economic and social development, cultural flourishing, modest welfare together with a philistine, petty bourgeois, gray-on-gray affective world with no politics.

It was a regime led by heartbroken, disappointed former Stalinists (Kádár himself, like the Polish general secretary, Władysław Gomułka, had spent many years in “communist” prison) who have resigned themselves to a program to give more meat and onions to the workers and to keep them from turning against the Soviet Union — with money borrowed from the West.

But the caste system was finished, social mobility was vertiginous, industrialization, urbanization, secularization fast and permanent; deference, servility, and humility (so typical of aristocratic-agrarian societies such as the east European ones) have disappeared. The regime’s writer was Thomas Mann — not Bertolt Brecht, not Marxism, but a sort of a vague secular humanism its ideology (with former Nazis rehabilitated on the sly writing historical novels).

When the Party had to launch a pro forma Vietnam solidarity campaign, the apparatchiki were absolutely flabbergasted at finding students genuinely indignant.

The appearance of a New Left has made the party apparat as incredulous as such phenomena are incomprehensible for the bloated reactionary and “Christian” small-town mayors of today: whoever in their right minds can be on the Left and worrying about Asiatic savages just getting what was coming to them anyway. An authentic democratic left was accused of a pro-gulag, Stalinist and Maoist slant exactly as it is suspected today of “totalitarian,” “statist,” and “Oriental” leanings by the neoliberal media.

The exponents of the Kádár régime have found the mention of the word “worker” as ridiculous and implausible as the exponents of today’s neoliberalism: sometimes, of course, the very same people. East European official economists of the late 1970s have found Keynes to be a vulgar communist and were diligently annotating their Hayek and Friedman.

All in all, it was a respectable, old-fashioned, anal-retentive, conservative, and bourgeois régime which has enjoyed a popular support (and a nostalgia these days in a population that believes it to have been superior to the present system by a majority of more than 80 percent, including the voters of the chauvinist right) no other system enjoyed, ever, or is likely to enjoy in the future. It is very frustrating for me, but who cares about my sensibilities, I don’t very much, either.

Andrew Ryder

How would you characterize the distinctions between the Right in the United States, as opposed to Central Europe?

G. M. Tamás

The differences are, after all, much more of style than of substance. Imagine a country where the Left is rather like the Tea Party and the Right is even more so, but this latter is not respectful of constitutional pieties, is openly anti-republican, openly anti-democratic, in its historical sympathies siding with the Axis powers (almost nobody dares to call Hitler’s defeat “liberation,” although a few of us will celebrate liberation in April in a club able to hold about two hundred people — who will be described on Facebook as “Jews” whoever they might be — and this will be all).

Imagine a country where one of the heroes of the “center-left” is Sen. McCain. So the distinction is not between the American and the Central and East European right, but that we have an even smaller left than North America — for example, no trade unions worth mentioning. But these days you can observe the South African Communist Party and its “radical” labor union affiliate, COSATU, deploying orthodox and unforgiving neoliberal policies. Start from there.