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An Event in Hungary

In response to:

The Hungarian Lesson from the December 5, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Timothy Garton Ash is one of the rare Westerners who is able to see an East European country through the eyes of its inhabitants. The way he presented the cultural and political situation of present-day Hungary [December 5, 1985] is correct, informative, and full of sympathy toward the people (and not to the regime). Even his irony is fitting to his subject. Nevertheless, there is one piece of his careful essay that shows he does not see quite clearly one of the most important events in the last few years; the coalition between the different groups of the Hungarian intellectuals. As one of the members of the opposition, i.e, the organizer of the Flying University (uncensored lectures on historical, political, sociological, and cultural subjects in private flats) and co-editor of the samizdat review Beszélö, let me put in a word about this important event.

What is going on?” asks Timothy Garton Ash at the end of a short description of the evening when the writer György Konrad invited some Westerners to his home in Budapest, saying: “I would like my friends to tell you about Transylvania.” But Mr. Garton Ash went a little bit far in his description, evidently being carried away by his irony. “This they, or rather he (the poet Sandor Csoóri)—the leader of the Populists—proceeds to do, at length, with some quite chilling stories of Romanian persecution, slowly, almost ceremoniously translated (for, as befits a true populist, the Leader speaks only Hungarian) by a member of his court.” I am somewhat helpless to determine what “befits a true Populist.” I do know more than a few Western writers (English, French, German, and American) who do not speak any other language than their mother tongue—and not all of them are “Populists.”

On the other hand, I also know some Hungarian “Populists” (or rather non-cosmopolitans) who speak other foreign languages, as the cosmopolitan Konrad does. So I am not sure what befits a true Populist. And as far as the second point, the “slowly, almost ceremoniously translated” stories, is concerned—well, I was not there, so I cannot tell—but perhaps it is true that what Csoóri was saying about the Romanian persecution was rather carefully translated, paying careful attention to all the nuances of the complicated subject. And perhaps the translator was also afraid that Csoóri would be treated as a nationalist, though not by those Westerners participating in the events of the evening, of course. Timothy Garton Ash, in his book The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, accurately described a similar situation: “… the ‘True Poles’ carried on the intolerant, racist tradition of the prewar National Democrats. They could accurately be described as ‘nationalists,’ unlike the vast majority of Solidarity members who were simply patriots—that is, their love of their country and desire to see it free from foreign occupation was not mixed with intolerance, hatred of other peoples, or the desire to see other nations occupied. (The essential distinction between nationalism and patriotism is made by George Orwell in his ‘Notes on Nationalism.’)” I know Sandor Csoóri well enough to say that this fear of being treated as a nationalist is in his guts. He—and many other patriots—has had ample experience with that type of discreditation.

But, after all, what was going on that evening? With some necessary corrections, something that Mr. Garton Ash summarized (a bit ironically, again) when he said that “György Konrad, himself so very obviously from the cosmopolitan, urbanist, democratic tradition, is here making a demonstrative gesture of friendship—or, at least, common-frontship—to the Populist.” Yes, Konrad made a valuable gesture of friendship, helping the latter to get publicity for the miserable status of the Hungarian minorities. Konrad did that because both of them love their homeland. Konrad loves it as a wandering guru, comparing Budapest with the other big cities in the West, trying to teach Hungarians to be more similar to the Western type, free citizens. Csoóri loves his homeland in a different mode, as a vicar; carefully listening to the people’s complaints and trying to console them. In Garton Ash’s terms, Csoóri represents the democratic wing of the patriotic, populist tradition, as Konrad represents the democratic, non-bolshevik wing of the cosmopolitan, urbanist tradition.

And that democratic attitude is the common front, the rock on which the new coalition of the different groups of the politically active Hungarian intellectuals is based. And that love of the homeland has recently developed into a fear for the future of Hungary and of the Hungarians. We have reason enough to fear for that; our cultural life is as terribly entangled as Timothy Garton Ash depicted it, our political life is paralyzed and full of lies, everyday life is getting harder and harder for almost everyone, the people are disillusioned and getting increasingly fed up with the Party’s rosy promises instead of realistic perspective, and the news about the approximately three million members of the Hungarian minorities is alarming the ten million Hungarian citizens.

It was precisely this fear for the future that drew together the roughly forty-five prominent Hungarian intellectuals in an “illegal” meeting in Monor to discuss the situation and possible solutions to the crisis (the word “crisis” has been used more frequently over the last two years—a bad omen). And in Monor, Csoóri, the dissidents, reform economists, independent writers, historians, sociologists, etc., were also discussing the problems of the Hungarian minorities, because this is one of the basic human rights affairs in East Europe.

So, “dear and patient reader,” my country Hungary “Needs You,” as Timothy Garton Ash said in such simple and moving words.

Sandor Szilagyi

New School for Social Research

New York City

Timothy Garton Ash replies:

I do assure Mr. Szilagyi that the interpretation of Mr. Csoóri’s stories on that interesting evening was not merely careful but positively ceremonial. Coming from a country where there are no recognized intellectual leaders, nor even recognized intellectuals, indeed where even the intellectuals do not recognize themselves as such, I am always struck by the strong, almost courtly Central European sense of intellectual hierarchy, etiquette, and deference, which is all that detail was meant to convey. It is a pleasure to be quoted against myself on the difference between nationalists and patriots, but I nowhere suggested that Sandor Csoóri is a “nationalist,” or that he is not a democrat.

All I would suggest is that there is still a significant difference between the urbanists’ and the populists’ priorities, with, in crude summary, urbanists tending to put the democratic before the national, and populists tending to put the national before the democratic—and that this can sometimes lead them to adopt somewhat different attitudes toward the present Hungarian state. Particularly in view of the Western world’s apparent blindness to the horrible persecution of Hungarians in Romania, some populists might feel that the Hungarian state authorities (though regrettably socialist) are the one potentially effective defender of those persecuted Hungarians, whereas urbanists would rather argue that the Hungarian state will only become an effective defender of those persecuted Hungarians when it is itself more “democratized,” and therefore more responsive to the great public concern about this issue in Hungary.

From the texts and accounts of the Monor meeting available to me, it does appear that these differences emerged quite clearly there. Mr. Szilagyi is unfair to suggest that I did not pay sufficient attention to this event: my sentence about György Konrad, which he misquotes, actually concluded “a demonstrative gesture of friendship—or at least, commonfrontship—to the Populists, in the spirit of Monor,” and I earlier devoted two paragraphs to the Monor meeting. We differ only in the assessment of it. Mr. Szilagyi hopefully suggests that a shared democratic attitude is “the rock” on which a new intellectual coalition is being built. While not for one moment wishing to substitute “sand” for “rock,” I am slightly more skeptical about the underlying political geology. But Mr. Szilagyi’s springing to the defense of Mr. Csoóri in the pages of The New York Review can only help to strengthen a putative post-Monor “coalition” in Budapest; and therefore I can only welcome his creative chivalry.

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