The Hungarian Lesson

Background Reading

Imagine a garden maze, a maze in which mirrors conceal the hedges, giving the illusion of open space and free movement, but also distorting wildly, as in a fairground hall of mirrors. At one corner you look impossibly tall, thin, and pale, like the poet Petöfi; at the next, absurdly squat. First you confidently step forward—and hit a mirror. Then you nervously edge round an open space. But sometimes you can walk straight through a mirror (or hedge), only, of course, to find yourself in another alley. Here you meet the administrator of the maze, himself lost in it.

This is Hungary.

At a recent meeting of the writers’ union one of Hungary’s most respected writers, István Eörsi, delivered a powerful appeal for censorship. Yes, for censorship. Give us censorship! he said. Give us one office which is clearly and officially denoted as the Censors’. Specify its powers. Give us legal definitions of the boundaries. Prosecute us in the courts if we trespass beyond them. At least we would then know where the hedges are. Eörsi’s idea was not new. Solidarity in Poland, attacked the censorship in precisely this way, by demanding its selfdefinition, and partly achieved that goal in the 1981 law, “On the Control of Publications and Public Performances.” Even today, the censorship is more explicit and visible in Poland than in any other East European state, which is a kind of progress.

In Hungary the position is worse and better. Better because in practice so much can be published officially, including works of Polish writers such as Witold Gombrowicz which cannot be published officially in Poland. Worse because, since there is no Censor, everyone has become a censor; not just the officials in those departments of the Central Committee and the Culture Ministry which are, in fact, politically responsible for censorship, but every newspaper editor, publisher’s reader, television producer, and, worst of all, the writer himself. Because there is not one censorship there are many censorships: collective and individual, political and social, pre-and postpublication, before, after, and during the very act of writing. In this respect, Hungary is more like the Soviet Union—where, as is well known, there is no Censorship.

The Hungarian difference consists not in the machinery of censorship, but in the way it is used. Pierre Kende1 has identified three main surviving categories of “outright taboo.” You may not question or criticize the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, Soviet foreign policy in general, and neighboring socialist states insofar as they follow Soviet precepts. (This last is the only major constraint on what economists can publish officially.) The basic legitimacy of Communist party rule is also sacrosanct. Finally, you cannot directly attack Marxist-Leninist “socialism” by name.2 Yet as Kende points out, there are startling exceptions even in these categories: a historical journal has published an astonishingly frank account of how the Communist party rigged the 1947 elections, which formally legitimated its seizure of power, and even the great trauma of 1956…

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