G. M. Tamás Wasn’t “Hungary’s Last Marxist”

Upon G. M. Tamás’s death last month, even many laudatory obituaries claimed that he marked the endpoint of Hungary’s Marxist traditions. But Marxism isn't dead in Hungary.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás in Budapest, Hungary, on November 18, 2005. (Wikimedia Commons)

Gáspár Miklós Tamás was, without a doubt, one of the most diverse and creative thinkers in the former Eastern bloc. A Transylvanian Marxist philosopher — also known as TGM, or Gazsi — he left behind a vibrant intellectual legacy, not only as a theorist but as an uncompromising public writer, fierce critic, and caring comrade. In the West, he is most recognized for being a ruthless critic of various authoritarian regimes. But his intellectual path was anything but simple: moving from anarchism to liberalism and conservatism, and then finding his way back to Marxism and socialism. His theoretical work always involved reinvention and questioning all that exists, in a political climate often poisoned by sectarianism and puritanism. He was one of the most original thinkers in the region, with his insight into concepts such as fascism and post-fascism, class and capital, communism and anti-communism, power and democracy, and many more.

Tamás’s memory has been handled in a rather apolitical manner in Hungary. Even far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán shared a tribute to the late philosopher, calling him “the last freedom fighter.” Many such accounts, inevitably, leaned on words like “fighter” or “good fight,” as well as Tamás’s brilliant writing style, sophisticated knowledge, and forceful character — but did not mention the revolutionary type of fight he was actually pursuing. Other obituaries from the right-wing and liberal intelligentsia harped on Tamás’s definitive turn to Marxism. In the past thirty years, when most Eastern European intellectuals drifted further right, his defiant presence proved that there is still a strong tradition of the political left.

Such peers framed his turn to Marxism as an “unfortunate mistake,” a thing of the past that has no legitimacy or future. Some even claim that the Marxist tradition in Hungary is now gone with him. They could not be more wrong. His last book, called Antitézis, was a great success defying any expectations in Hungary. There is an ignorance and unwillingness to deal with a new generation of left-wing Eastern European scholars, intellectuals, and political organizers, for whom Tamás was nothing short of an icon. Upon his death, young scholars from across Central Europe, the Balkans, and as far as Ukraine, paid emotional tributes to their former teacher, mentor, friend, and comrade.

From Transylvania to Budapest

Gáspár Miklós Tamás was born in 1948 in Kolozsvár (Cluj), a city briefly under Hungarian rule during World War II but restored to Romania shortly before his birth. The son of a Hungarian father and Jewish-Hungarian mother, he lived and studied in Romania until the early 1980s, when he was expelled from the country because of his radical opposition to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s authoritarian rule. He was not able to return home for ten years.

As a Hungarian native with Jewish ancestry, Tamás became a target of the ultranationalist “communist” authorities in Romania. Tamás often described its ideology as “faux-communist” and he listed extreme nationalism, chauvinism, and the oppression of ethnic minorities as its main characteristics. His critical analysis of the Ceaușescu regime still offers some of the most valuable insights on the history of Romanian communism and the 1989 Romanian Revolution. For many years, Tamás did not write anything in Romanian, simply because he did not want to use the language of his oppressors. Later in his life, though, he started writing in Romanian again and found some lost dimensions to his complicated Transylvanian identity.

He moved to the Hungarian capital in 1978 to join the democratic opposition. Similarly to his peers, he struggled with alienation, poverty, censorship, and other hardships. But ultimately he believed that working (and fighting) for democracy was the only way forward. As Tamás became politically more engaged he turned toward libertarianism, social conservatism, and Hungarian patriotism.

Later, he talked about this episode in his career with regret and called his reactionary era a “deviation” coming from a place of “anger and desperation.” By the time the Soviet Union broke up, many former leftists had indeed become conservatives, anti-communists, and even worse. The anger toward socialism as a failed project was culturally overwhelming. To cite a simple example, late professor Ágnes Heller and other members of the so-called “Lukács School” publicly broke with Marxism. Later, most would distance themselves from Tamás, faced with his turn (or rather, return) to Marxist views.

In today’s Hungary, memorial plaques and statues of György Lukács and Karl Polanyi are frequently removed and destroyed, and anti-fascist statues banished into a park for abandoned monuments outside of Budapest. The Hungarian right is desperate to remove any sign of the historical left. Tamás, however, sought to build it on new bases. Indeed, his anger against the failed socialist system turned him into a self-critical Marxist thinker the Eastern European left desperately needed.

On Fascism and Post-Fascism

While the memory of the historical left is today being erased in Eastern Europe, the discourse of the 1930s is seemingly still alive. We see this in the presence of Holocaust revisionism and denialism, the glorification of Nazi collaborators, and symbolic violence against the communists and anti-fascists of the past. This is also part of a wider discussion of global fascism and what it means today. Tamás’s remarkable essay “On Post-Fascism” provides much-needed clarity on what it means to be a fascist today and how it is different from the legacy of Nazism. As Tamás defined it in his essay:

Post-fascism is a cluster of policies, practices, routines, and ideologies that can be observed everywhere in the contemporary world; that have little or nothing to do, except in Central Europe, with the legacy of Nazism; that are not totalitarian; that are not at all revolutionary; and that are not based on violent mass movements and irrationalist, voluntaristic philosophies, nor are they toying, even in jest, with anti-capitalism. Post-fascism finds its niche easily in the new world of global capitalism without upsetting the dominant political forms of electoral democracy and representative government.

Tamás argued that for younger people, even in Eastern Europe, most historical fascist and Nazi ideas would seem ridiculous and totally unrelatable. Ultramilitarism, mysticism, the macho speed fetish, reactionary romanticism, selfless fanaticism, and so on are not exactly ideas that would resonate with alt-right hipsters on Spotify harping about the “woke left.” Tamás did single out antisemitism as the definitive link between the “old fascists” and the new ones. And yet post-fascists — contrary to any mainstream narrative — aren’t traditionalists, anti-modernists, the underclass, or the losers of a merit- and competition-based capitalist order.

Rather, in Hungary, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the rise of post- and neo-fascism is, rather, connected to the post-1989 economic collapse and the weak legitimacy of liberal democracy. It is above all a product of the anti-communist Zeitgeist that followed the end of the Stalinist “state socialist” systems. It was born as a polemic against the hegemonic liberalism that ideologically had nothing else to say than “capitalism is human nature.” Post-1989 bourgeois elites said that inequality is necessary for the development of the privatized economy, but the national economic collapse just left millions jobless, homeless, and humiliated.

Tamás himself was not only a theorist of fascism and post-fascism but also an active member of anti-fascist protests in Hungary. In recent years, he was also virtually the only Hungarian intellectual who spoke up for the people of Kurdistan, Syria, and Palestine and joined protests demanding justice for them. He stood firmly with communities frequently targeted by the extreme far right at home. He raised his voice for Roma and Jewish Hungarians, immigrants, refugees, mentally ill and disabled people, homosexuals, and transgender people.

What Remains

Tamás’s Antitézis (Antithesis) was released in 2021, and it comprises translations of essays and articles published previously in English. The book includes “Telling the Truth About Class” — one of his most influential essays written in English. The collection also features two new essays that he has written in Hungarian. The selection of his writings offers perspective on how Tamás’s theoretical work is aligned with the Western Marxist tradition and includes critical analysis of the Stalinist “state socialist” systems. Notable, here, was that Tamás was extremely critical of the current anti-communist narratives and attitudes that only offer a somewhat revisionist understanding of the former regime. The book has already gone through three editions and it was undeniably a great success in Hungary. Tamás was also an extremely productive political writer, but withdrew from political journalism in 2020.

He often expressed disillusionment over the devastating state of our civilization, and claimed that socialism — as a counterculture — seemed to be disappearing. His view of the current world and its future was extremely pessimistic. However, Tamás believed that because of these impossible conditions, it is more important than ever to carry on our critical and revolutionary practices. This is also a reason why Tamás was extremely outspoken against anti-intellectualism both on the right and left.

On the contrary, he encouraged students and workers to challenge themselves intellectually. As he wrote in a 2019 article: “Let’s study classical political philosophy, history, sociology, economics, law. Let’s prepare, let’s look around, get to know the reality in Hungary, Eastern Europe, and the West. Let’s get rid of TV shows, pop music, memes, gifs and Facebook. Let’s forget about influencers and gastroblogs and award-winning movies. Let’s forget about Harari-type political kitsch and shallow tourism.” Inevitably, his passionate outburst sparked a rather annoying Adornoian debate about the value of pop culture. But this missed his real point: that we are running out of time, and the crisis of global capitalism requires sharp, educated, and critical approaches.

Tamás participated in anti-capitalist protests until the very end. In September 2022, he wasn’t able to attend the march for housing rights in Budapest because of his health condition, but he wrote a fiery speech for the occasion, addressing housing inequality and the government’s inhumane treatment of unhoused people. In his last speech, Tamás declared, “Injustice affects everyone. Justifying injustice offends everyone. The system is unbearable.” And it is.

Paradoxically, his pessimism somehow gave hope to the young left in Eastern Europe and Hungary to struggle for a socialist alternative — to reject what we’ve been told in the past thirty years of our existence that rampant inequality, corporate greed, exploitation, natural hierarchy, hunger, state violence, and war is human nature and consumerism means freedom. Our subversive courage may be born of despair, but it is coming through.