Róbert Nárai:In the 1960s, György Lukács – under the slogan ‘back to Marx!’– called for a ‘renaissance’ of Marxism within Eastern Europe. Your political and theoretical work is very much an answer to this call. Could you begin by telling us about what this renaissance entailed?
Tamás Krausz: To understand the nature of this renaissance we have to understand the many important questions that the Hungarian uprising of 1956 raised for the anti-Stalinist left across the world. I will only touch on what is relevant to the impact it had on those of us inside Hungary and Eastern Europe more broadly.
After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), following the investigations of the phenomenon of Stalinism, many people began to realise the sharp contrast between our own situation and the historical and social conditions that led to the Russian Revolution and its emancipatory goals.
In regard to Lukács on this question, he deduced the ‘limitations’ of the Russian Revolution from the ‘non-classical nature’ of the revolution and Soviet development. This was not merely a matter of the limitations posed by its ‘semi-peripheral’ economic and cultural conditions, ‘unequal development’, its authoritarian traditions, nor the hostile encirclement of the Soviet Union within the global system. But rather it was a consequence of the disintegrating conceptual unity of the sphere of production and economy on the one hand and that of democracy on the other hand. This is despite the fact that in ‘Eastern-European’ Marxism (including its Soviet variety) the question of political democracy had been understood in relation to the economy, accumulation, and the mode of production since Plekhanov (and in fact since Marx). It was seen as an intrinsic feature of the economy and mode of production. At a later period, István Mészáros conceptualised this condition as ‘substantive democracy’. Here, democracy is not an isolated political demand within the revolutionary wing of the Marxist tradition, but is also, at the same time, a working-class economic demand.
Following 1956, the deepest immediate issue that every current of anti- Stalinist Marxism had to address was how this unity, the unity of the economy and democracy that existed in the early years of the Russian Revolution, could be recovered. To all those on the anti-Stalinist left across the world it seemed that the workers’ councils of 1956 were institutional attempts at re- establishing this unity. This was in fact what was at stake in the theoretical work of Lukács, a ‘minister of the 1956 revolution’, and numerous other thinkers throughout the 1960s and 70s; though under the influence of events in 1956, Hungarian party officials, with Kádár at the helm, were – naturally – thinking in terms of another paradigm. While Lukács associated the workers’ councils of 1956 with the Russian workers’ councils of 1917, the official party stance characterised the councils as counterrevolutionary forces. In 1956 the theoretical problem of the loss of this unity became a practical question.
Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought to forge a kind of ‘third way’ – a ‘tertium datur’ as Lukács put it – between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism: a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. It emerged from the correspondence between István Mészáros and Lukács that Lukács raised the question of tertium datur after 1956, claiming that Stalinism could be left behind without restoring capitalism.
In the West, the problem was that after 1968, theoretical thinking was disconnected from practice, since, among other reasons, no real socialist experiment had been possible in the absence of large revolutionary parties; and the large Italian and French communist parties were unable to react to the events of 1968 in a revolutionary way – they could not lead the masses, and they had no alternative anticapitalist economic programme. In Eastern Europe, genuine Marxist thinkers had to break with the legitimating ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Neither the revolutionary new left nor the old Communist Parties had an adequate economic programme that could have provided an alternative to capitalism.
In Hungary, the sinologist and philosopher Ferenc Tőkei, and Lukács and his followers (later referred to as the ‘Budapest School’), were chewing over the same theoretical questions as the Praxis circle in Yugoslavia, and others in Poland and elsewhere. These thinkers had broken with the ideological approach that saw history as a mechanical product of blind necessity, one which bound the interpretation of history within the confines of abstract theoretical models. This break was an important development both in terms of the theory and historiography of Soviet history.
One of the main issues of debate in the theory of history concerns the alternative nature of historical development, which is to say the possibility in history of a development alternative to that of the already existing reality, as Lukács argues in his Ontology. Practically ahead of all others, Isaac Deutscher raised the fundamental historical question regarding Soviet development, that of the ‘great breakthrough’, namely the ‘revolution from above’ (forced collectivisation, intensive industrialisation, the introduction of a planned economy, etc.), that is, was there any alternative to it? The question was especially relevant in Eastern Europe at the time, because it seemed as if the 1960s would produce some radical alternatives. Later, at the time of Perestroika, it was only natural that the same question arose once again. From the perspective of our subject, the new Third Party Programme (accepted at the 22nd CPSU Congress in 1961) is important, since it defined ‘communist society as the system of social self-organisation’. Though Khrushchev’s reforms were out of sync with the theory, they nevertheless opened up the possibility of socialist thought engaging with more philosophical issues. Thinkers in the East could outline the future socialist perspectives, albeit only in theory, detached from the concrete practical tasks. I am referring particularly to the theoretical groundwork for the concept of the ‘alternative’ in Lukács’s Ontology.
In the Ontology, Lukács based his argument on Marx’s well-known idea, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances’, proceeding to add: ‘For there are no alternatives that are not concrete ones; they can never be separated from their hic et nunc.’
These alternatives ‘give rise to causal chains’, while the actors in every concrete historical situation have to consider the options concretely. As we know, alternatives do not merely exist but rather are actively brought into being. Lukács illustrated this point with Lenin’s role in the Revolution of 1917. An intrinsic factor permitting the solution to ‘resolve’ a particular historical situation is the degree to which individuals – and society itself – are able to recognise the possibility of alternatives.
Whatever our evaluation of the historical significance of the Hungarian uprising might be, one matter is indisputable: it did not leave the general future of the Soviet and Eastern-European regimes unaffected. It was not possible to avoid raising the question posed by Trotsky: ‘What is the Soviet Union, and where is it going?’ Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th Party Congress, the Hungarian 1956, and 1968 all invalidated the Stalinist theory of social formations (the mechanical chronological progression of changes of social forms: ancient, feudal, capitalist, to communist), which had served to equate socialism with Stalinism and render the search for democratic socialist alternatives impossible. As a result, and not independently of the rise of the left in the West and the positive effect of the anti-imperialist/anti-colonial struggles, of course, the future of socialism had to be rethought on a global scale as well. All this was an important part of the ‘renaissance of Marxism’ that Lukács was calling for.
RN:So the theory of ‘state socialism’, namely a critical theory of ‘actually existing’ socialism – grounded in the theory of social formations – fit into this attempt, as you put it, to ‘rethink the future of socialism’ from your Eastern European perspective?
TK: Yes, that is quite correct.
Until the 1960s, theoretical perspectives in the West were determined by debates and concepts drawn from work done before the Second World War. Between 1929 and 1941, the notion of state capitalism as a theory describing Soviet development was most popular among Western leftists, and even Marxists, who of course were not members of the official communist parties and were also detached from the Comintern tradition. However, it is for the most part the uni-linear template that fit well with the ‘vulgar-materialistic’ atmosphere of the period, which assumed the chronological sequence of five social forms (primitive communism, ancient slave society, feudalism, capitalism, and communism), following one from the other, in a mechanical and pre-determined fashion.
In Eastern Europe, and especially Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union, there was no notable influence of the theory of state capitalism on circles of ‘critical Marxists’: it could not be adapted to Marx’s theory of social formations, since it is simply impossible to describe the Stalinist system as a profit-oriented economy, as a capitalist market economy, in which on the basis of private ownership accumulation is carried on in the interests of a ‘state bourgeoisie’.
In 1947, Tony Cliff reformulated the theory of state capitalism (and a whole movement came to be organised on its basis): it pitted the question of ownership against the question of power. The Marxian social-formation theory reconstructed by Ferenc Tőkei – in a philologically credible manner – aimed, among other things, to supersede such theories. The problem of the nature of the Soviet system necessarily led to the question of social formations as a whole, which essentially concerned the way in which state, private, and communal (collective) ownership are related to each other. In order to change the existing division of labour in the long term, you need to change ownership and power relations.
The Hungarian Marxist philosopher András György Szabó reconstructed Marx’s terminology in order to conceptually define the essence of the ‘state- socialist’ system. Three fundamentally different positions were formulated in the debate stimulated by his work.
The first position was that state socialism as a system originated in Stalinist development and its downfall would be the consequence of its own internal contradictions. In essence, it was a modernisation experiment. The supporters of this position see no real difference between capitalist and Stalinist attempts at modernisation.
The second was that the old state-socialist system, in spite of all its failures, was a development that could be continued, and repudiating it would serve the prevailing capitalist power structure in its ideological claims to legitimacy; therefore, the fundamentally positive elements of this past had to be protected in order to preserve the anti-capitalist tradition. The collapse would be a result of imperialist intrigue and betrayal.
The third position was that state socialism was the product of a particular historical constellation, and as such it should not be repeated. Its downfall was caused essentially by internal factors, but a number of cultural-intellectual and social achievements were amassed in the course of the development of this system, which certainly constitute a heritage worth preserving for the future. We can list among these, first of all, the theoretical and practical tradition of weak but existing social self-government, self-organisation, and the defence of the lower classes. These are the traditions which the ‘revival of social self-organisations’ in the 1960s, especially in 1968, helped develop and deepen.
The concept of state socialism refers to an irreconcilable contradiction.
On the one hand, the old state socialism could not ‘disconnect’ from the world-capitalist system, with its global division of labour. It came into being dependent on the centre region, and continued its existence partly dependent on it, in some historical periods even having been under threat of (military or economic) liquidation from this environment.
On the other hand, the state-socialist system eliminated the profit- producing society, the accumulation of private capital, and the capitalist structure based on the money and market economy. State socialism undoubtedly worked as a politically and socially-motivated system for the extraction of surplus labour. In state socialism, in addition to the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and its economic and financial institutions, the capitalist market economy was substituted by various forms and institutions of state planning and distribution. A new specific class society came about (still to be explored in terms of social history) determined by the traditional division of labour. But in this society, according to the Constitution, state property was by definition neither inheritable nor open for sale or purchase; it belonged to society in principle.
Throughout its history one might say that state socialism as a system, basing its legitimacy on its revolutionary origins, continued an ideological war (of a rather changeable and paradoxical kind) with the capitalist market economy and the privileged bureaucracy, whose upper echelons disposed of state property.
Through this ideological war the regime only conspired to hide what was really important, namely that in spite of its anti-capitalist features, it upheld a whole range of social inequalities and hierarchies that are also typical of Western societies. But whatever name the system is given, the fundamental problem from the start concerned how to socialise the state property brought about through the nationalisation of capitalist property and capitalist assets. Despite its being called communal in the Constitution, state property held under state socialism in fact had the character of bureaucratic state ownership. After the change of regimes, the liberals also considered state property to be social property, which had to be privatised.
The alternative that we put forward is a self-governing, democratic socialism, which is diametrically opposed to the traditional state as a structure.
RN:Moving on to 1968: how did the events of the Prague Spring – not to mention Germany, Italy, France, the United States, and so forth – have an impact on what was taking place politically and intellectually in Hungary at the time?
TK: First we need to point out that 1968 collapsed worldwide because it had no vision and practice for an alternative economy. This gap was filled by neoliberalism later in the 1970s. The demands for liberty, gender equity, and human rights were not connected to a practice of a non-hierarchical and non-exploitative economic system. 1968 had little to say concerning wage labour as the official left parties could not think beyond the neo-Keynesian model and they lacked a real socialist programme – as I pointed out above. Thus neoliberalism could appropriate the heritage of 1968, absorbing many of its demands, while preaching the free movement of capital as opposed to the welfare state.
Moreover, the ‘world revolution’ of 1968 meant two basic things for Eastern Europe: economic reform and the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Both distanced us from socialism, rather than bringing it closer, but both took place under the banner of socialism. In the official Communist Parties in the East the ‘dogmatists’ and the ‘revisionists’ fought with each other, the first trying to further ‘centralise’ bureaucratic control, while the second supported market-oriented reforms. The revisionists had varying success in Eastern Europe but in the end they always found a compromise in order to stay in power and prevent any real socialist democratic experiment.
In this regard Hungary reflected the fundamental contradictions. Economic reforms followed, meaning a transformation of the command economy, decentralisation, and the introduction of material interests and market incentives. But at the same time political reforms were stalled and ‘socialist democracy’ emptied out. Lukács tried in vain to inform the world that economic reforms in themselves, without the democratisation of production and consumption, the establishment of a needs-centred economy, and the participation of the producer classes, would pave the way for the establishment of a bourgeois transformation, the ‘consumer society’, of the return of capitalism. In contrast to this development Lukács put forward the ‘tertium datur’, namely the search for a non-Stalinist, non- capitalist alternative, in his book written in 1968, Demokratisierung heute und morgen in which he revived the historical experiences of workers’ councils and direct democratic control.
To put it in Lukácscian terms, the ‘alternative’ in any part of Eastern Europe involved three abstract possibilities of development. The preservation of the status quo was one of the possible courses of development; the second was the restoration of capitalism; the third being the transformation of the system towards socialism. All three possibilities were manifestly at work in the events in Czechoslovakia, the ‘new economic mechanism’ in Hungary, the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, as well as in the Yugoslav transformation. In a latent form, of course, the alternative was present in the Soviet Union as well, even if Khrushchev did not understand it. Yet twenty years later, the period of Perestroika made it clear that these triple possibilities of development were not equally likely.
RN:In what way was your own work in this period – the 1970s and 1980s – a response to this conjuncture?
TK: In the 1970s and 80s (as a young historian) I was engaged in exploring the viable (humanist) elements of Marxism with many of my colleagues. Most of all I worked with Miklós Mesterházi, who went on to become a scholar at the Lukács Archívum, on the Bolshevik reception of the early Lukács; with Tütő Lászlóval I tried to reconstruct Lenin’s concept of socialism, and then the concept of socialism in Trotsky; but in general I was interested in the Soviet development of the 1920s and the reasons for the rise of Stalinism. By 1989 all of this led me to believe that I understood the theoretical, political, and moral message of Lukács’s tertium datur. The questions I was dealing with were inextricably linked to my attempt to reconstruct a viable, humanist Marxism.
RN:And so the unity of these concerns led, on the one hand, to the establishment of the journal Eszmélet, and on the other, to the opposition within the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP)?
TK: To understand the formation of Eszmélet one has to understand what happened to our renaissance. Most of the Marxists coming from the Lukácsian tradition eventually arrived at a liberal acceptance of, and even support for, the change of regimes, having worked their way through communal socialism and workers’ self-government. However, at the beginning of the 1980s, in the introduction to their book with the eloquent title Dictatorship Over Needs, Agnes Heller, Ferenc Fehér, and György Márkus, already an émigré, wrote: ‘We, all three, are convinced that the world needs more, not less socialism than it has today.’
The same year, in their book of 1983, A szovjet típusú fejlődés marxista szemmel [The Soviet Type of Development from a Marxist Perspective], György Bence and János Kis proposed that the demolition of the cement walls of state-ownership should be succeeded by community and group ownership, and workers’ self-government. Then, in the mid-1980s, after the movement for workers’ self-government suffered a defeat in the Polish labour-union Solidarity, a sudden drop in the number of those thinking about the realisation of wage-workers’ interests as socialism, as a tertium datur, could be felt in Hungary as well. At this point, another, a different attempt to prepare the philosophical, historical, and, in part, political grounds for the new self- governing socialism in the womb of the old system led to the creation of the Hungarian journal Eszmélet, which was supported by a civil organisation called ‘Left-wing Alternative Association’
The first issue of Eszmélet, published at the beginning of 1989, made reference to the similar attempt by István Mészáros (‘eszmélet’ means consciousness) and other distinguished Hungarian intellectuals to establish a journal of the same name in 1956, in the spirit of an anti-Stalinist and anti- capitalist tradition. Thoughout his life we maintained a friendly and fruitful relationship with István Mészáros who unfortunately passed away recently. In retrospect, even under the old system, but in a more liberal climate, György Aczél, a leading cultural politician, also supported the creation of this Marxist journal, because by then a liberal and a nationalist journal had also been established.
Eszmélet, a unique organ in 1989 within Eastern Europe, is still in existence thanks to our vast international connections. At the beginning of the 1990s, many well-known figures of the European radical left appeared in our publication and spoke at our events. As a starting point, our journal had been concerned with conveying and developing the main achievements of our theory of social formations. One of our contentions was that during the transition there would be no dawn of a ‘good capitalism’, and we rejected the ideologies that legitimated such views; instead, we based our perspective on the humanist, socialist project as an alternative at the level of theory.
In terms of translating these theoretical perspectives into an orientation toward real-world praxis, we built up an independent platform within the MSZP in 1989-90. In the old ‘state socialism’, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) did not have an organised left; all that existed were the ‘dogmatists’ and ‘revisionists’. The former’s orientation was based on the status quo, while the latter arrived at the standpoint of the restoration of capitalism, but both trends were opposed to the democratic transformation of state socialism. As I have already mentioned, Lukacs’s students, such as János Kis or György Bence, were initially committed to Lukács’s project, but in the 1980s, under the banner of liberalism, they became the main advocates of capitalist restoration. They came to believe that democracy and capitalism were synonymous. We of course did not fall into this trap.
RN:How did the Marxist theory of social formations inform your analysis of the transition? How did it differ from the other dissident currents at the time?
TK: Eastern Europe is an area with a very specific conjunction of semi- peripheral gentry capitalism and autocratic traditions: in the definition of the historian Emil Niederhauser it extends from the Baltic region, through Poland and Hungary, down to Croatia. This ‘belt’, which he refers to as ‘Central Eastern Europe’, is clearly delineated from the three other sub- regions of Eastern Europe: the Russian-Ukrainian-Belorussian (‘Eastern Eastern Europe’), the Balkans (without Croatia and Slovenia) , and ‘Western Eastern Europe’ (the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia), which is the most ‘bourgeoisified’ region.
The theory of social formations was essential in our analysis of contemporary world history, and this methodological background certainly played a role in the prognosis that a group of historians made, even in a small country like Hungary, that on the basis of this theory, the restorative changes of regimes of 1989-91 would not lead to the celebrated ‘catching-up’ to the West that the ideologues spoke of.
It was clear that the 1989 project of ‘catching-up’ development was nonsense in the theoretical sense, and served only political goals, much like the later phantasmagoria about the ‘end of history’. In a large part of the Eastern European region, including of course Poland and Hungary, ‘catching- up’ and the whole project of a bourgeois democracy was doomed to failure from the very beginning. We argued that the new, oligarchic (we called it ‘nomenclatura’) capitalism can only function through the maintenance of authoritarian regimes in line with Eastern European-Russian traditions draped in nationalist robes – even under European-American patronage. The statement that Russia in 1917 lacked the social preconditions for a bourgeois democratic transformation is spectacularly confirmed by the fact that even now, in the nearly 30 years since 1989, no such regime could be established in Hungary. It was evident for us even in 1989 that it is impossible to build a bourgeois democracy without a democratic bourgeoisie. It is impossible to create a democratic bourgeoisie from above, by the state. The transitology and modernisation theory and terminology, let alone the various concepts of totalitarianism, always contain – overtly or covertly – several old and new characteristics of subordination to the global capitalist system.
Historians cannot be surprised at the formation of these authoritarian regimes which have been historically determined in the region, both from a national and global perspective. The intellectual ‘return’ of these regimes to the historical antecedents of the interwar era, to the cult of Horthy, in a completely different world and social structure is not at all paradoxical. For Eastern Europe then and now is defined by its semi-peripheral position in the world-system.
Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, system-critical historiography could not imagine ‘catching-up’ on a capitalist basis. Lenin was right when he underlined the plundering and parasitic character of modern capitalist accumulation. ‘The epoch of imperialism’, he wrote, ‘is an epoch in which the world is divided among the great privileged nations which oppress all the others.’ However, the local ruling classes and privileged groups are also interested in the maintenance of this world order. In spite of the great economic and social changes over the past hundred years, capitalism has failed to solve any of its major contradictions, which may lead to the destruction of humankind.
In a structural sense, contemporary debates about the concept and nature of neoliberal capitalism remind us of the polemics that were conducted one hundred years ago (regarding the accumulation of capital, the end of capitalism, the elimination of crisis under capitalism, the modes of management of capitalism – i.e., Stalinism, fascism, New Deal – the characteristics of imperialism, Kautsky’s theory of ultraimperialism, world government, etc.). I think a historian who deals with global history cannot avoid these debates. The essence of Marxism is to scientifically describe the structure and the exploitative system of capitalism and to work out ways to move beyond it.
Therefore 1989 as a ‘conservative revolution’ should have been fore- seeable, and its reactionary nature fit all the specificities of Eastern European development. Like Isaac Deutscher, or Lukács in his time, Marxist circles did not press for an immediate destruction of the state socialist system in 1989 because we predicted that the change of system would result in the oligarchic, ethno-nationalist ‘gangster capitalism’ typical of the semi- periphery of the global system. In 1989–90 we saw our main task as protecting and representing the cause of labour’s self-defence, the formation of workers’ councils.
And yet the socio-political substance of the change of regimes was misunderstood, misinterpreted by many even on the left in the West, from radicals to social democrats. It is widely known that our friend Ernest Mandel actually felt the fever of a new socialist revolution in 1989 though, it must be added, he later had the courage to re-assess his position. The most typical narrative explained the events as a ‘rectifying revolution’ – this was what Habermas was arguing – which carries the people back from a failed experiment to the world of bourgeois democracy. ‘Transitology’ – the main paradigm that dominated the literature in the 1990s – advocated a ‘catching- up development’ which for the Eastern European masses and politicians meant ‘catching up’ with the Western European levels of consumption and material prosperity once they implemented Western European types of political institutions and ‘introduced’ capitalism in the region. This was, of course, illusory.
‘Catching-up development’ has been criticised for its theoretical shortcomings by many critical thinkers who have pointed out the ideological and teleological implications of this ‘theory’. The assumption that Eastern Europe can catch up with the Western European capitalist countries economically and socially proved to be fundamentally wrong. One can indeed argue that in some respects the West has become ‘Easternised’ (in terms of the shrinking of the welfare state, a growing precariat, and the appearance of ethno-nationalistic and populist political parties)
What we could observe from Budapest to Moscow and from Moscow to Warsaw in proximity to the events, evidenced that there was a ferocious battle unfolding between various factions of the local elites and global representatives of capital around the redistribution of power and property, over the head of society. Already in 1989, we believed that all of this could lead at best to new types of ethno-nationalist authoritarian regimes descending on the region.
The regime-change elites all wanted to make us believe the opposite, and to do so specifically in regard to two related questions: One was pushing the notion that the question of ownership was not important, as workers are only interested in good wages. The other concerned democracy. They introduced the rule of law, but placed employment under the control of capital. They killed the first move with the second. We were sure of two things, nevertheless, and this knowledge we deepened over time: the question of ownership is the question of questions, because it simultaneously concerns both production and consumption, unemployment and exclusion on the scale of society as a whole. Capital is not afraid of occupied spaces and occupied streets but of occupied workplaces. Here capital can accept no compromise – either concerning worker-ownership, workplace occupation, or self-governing democracy. And all of this was justified by the asinine ideology of catching up with the West, without even bothering about the fact that it was Stalin who had originally come up with this idea. That is all that need be said about who had illusions about what.
We never forgot that social self-government has a rich historical store of experience regionally and globally, and it is no coincidence that capital and the state repeatedly had to repress such experiments. We believe that humankind can find no other way out of this system of incurable structural crisis under the rule of capital. The task we had set out to accomplish so many years ago, though under changed conditions, still stands before us here.
The second issue concerns how capitalism still underperforms old state socialism in a number of countries in many respects, which inevitably contributes to its discrediting in the eyes of the people. Quite when all of this will come to boiling point cannot be foreseen. Without any favourable external conditions, for example, an upturn in social and working class struggles throughout Europe and elsewhere, no significant change can be expected in our region.
RN:What were the political lessons you and your comrades drew from this internal fight within the MSZP? These sorts of questions have recurred time and time again throughout the history of our movement. For example, the debates on ‘entryism’ in the Trotskyist movement; the question of whether revolutionaries should enter the British Labour Party now that Corbyn is at the helm, which expresses a certain politicisation taking place amongst a layer of people in British society; whether it was correct for revolutionaries to intervene in the Syriza project, and so forth?
TK: I believe that there can be no ‘resurrection’ of the left without European and international cooperation. Venezuela, Brazil, Greece, etc. – their experiences show us not only that socialism cannot be created in isolated countries, but even capitalism as a universal mode of production is not really possible in an isolated country. Great Britain is no exception. The breakup of capitalist private property will hardly be on the agenda for a Labour victory. Without changing property ownership and the control over the movement of capital, serious change cannot happen.
We all know the history of the British Labour Party – there has been a left and a right throughout its history – but revolutionaries have learned from history that this party is unable to develop socialism in Great Britain. I mention here just three main reasons for this. The first is the Labour Party’s extensive intertwining with the bourgeois state and the large groups of social democrats in it who are committed to the current order. Second, the Labour Party has no alternative anti-capitalist economic programme – it merely promises to ‘reload’ the welfare state. Third, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the historical challenge of a socialist alternative, which weakened the position of labour in the core countries as well. Nevertheless, political and organisational strength can be gained for workers’ self-defence against capital and the state if there is a Labour victory. Therefore, the dilemma for revolutionary organisations, the dilemma of ‘outside or inside’, always arises in times like these when there is a shift to the left.
Since the system change in Hungary, this dilemma no longer exists, since the MSZP has gradually become an appendage of the state and capital, and there is no situation that could purge those politicians from the party whose ‘livelihoods’ are dependent upon being such an appendage. When the MSZP was formed in autumn of 1989, its objective was still democratic socialism, because at that point in time our anti-capitalist platform was very strong. We were then gradually dislodged from the organisational centre, and the party leadership (under Horn) embarked on restoring capitalism, accomplishing the turn to neoliberalism and entering NATO. Things turned even worse after Horn, and the war criminal Tony Blair became the explicit model for Ferenc Gyurcsány. Neoliberalism is now inscribed into the soul of the MSZP. Under a left-wing banner, it pursued a right-wing austerity programme that ultimately undermined its legitimacy among working people and created the conditions for the two-thirds parliamentary majority that Orbán achieved in the 2010 elections. Germany’s and Austria’s social democratic parties exemplify many of the same devolutionary tendencies.
The overriding lesson we learned from our battle within the MSZP was that without working-class people, without a social base in the class, without social movements, and so forth, a serious revolutionary organisation is impossible. During the transition and into the 1990s, working-class consciousness and political activity was declining, not rising. In the Kádár regime the working class had a real chance to be part of the middle class: they could buy flats, build houses, be the owners of weekend cottages, and purchase durable consumer goods. Undoubtedly, the exclusion from the political sphere reinforced material and consumer values, which led to the erosion of the propagated revolutionary consciousness. In the 1990s there was a gradual impoverishment of the bulk of the socialist working class; this, however, failed to translate into political action, thanks to the former de-politicisation of the working class and the lack of political parties that could organise the workers. In addition, almost all politicians believed in the ‘catching-up development’: that the Eastern European new capitalist societies could ‘catch up’ with the consumption levels of the advanced Western countries. This illusion contributed to the lack of working-class activism after 1989.
Let us be clear: it is not the old Communist Party that needs to be re- established; instead we need work on the defence of labour and social opposition to capital, as this is the right terrain for the battle. And here by the term ‘working class’ I refer to the absolute majority of the population, those working for wages or who are unemployed, exactly in the same way as Marx understood this. A new party can only be born out of a new labour movement.
We never accepted the privatisations of public services and nationalised industries, and I left the Left Platform in the beginning of 2009 because I understood that we could not fight for our position any longer. Everything was buried under neoliberalism. I never gave up my criticism of the privatisations and of oligarchic capitalism; I was an independent thinker in this respect. I understood that the MSZP as a force of the left was finished. The Hungarian Socialist Party is a bourgeois party of the centre. Today it resembles many of the former ‘social democratic’ parties: hollowed out bureaucracies with no roots in the working-class movement.
RN:What do you see as new about the Orbán regime compared to the regimes that came before it?
TK: International conditions have played an important role in the formation of this regime. Both the EU and the USA have persistently taken a paternalistic attitude in criticising Viktor Orbán’s government for its anti-democratic, authoritarian political moves, its concentration of power, its open anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments. However, they have never attacked its legitimacy, since the government maintains a low budget deficit, pays back debt as scheduled, and gives large-scale tax exemptions to multinationals. The majority of the population does not know about this since much of the media is controlled by Orbán. We should understand that the Orbán regime is the embodiment of the new populist far right, which is capable of implementing restrictive neoliberal policies under the banner of anti-globalist ideological campaigns, and which stresses the defence of European ’Christian values’.
By now it is well recognised that the Eastern European and Soviet system change was inseparable from the neoliberal restructuring of the global capitalist system and from the new forms and challenges of multinational capitalist power. The solution of the ‘communist reformers’ to the Soviet Union’s inability to compete economically and militaristically against the West was to ‘integrate’ into capitalism with the help of the core Western countries. A regime like Orbán’s is the ultimate logical consequence of this. The main aims of the state in the beginning of the socialist period were the elimination of the national bourgeoisie and the abolition of private property. It was illegal to trade state property. The new system acts in the opposite direction. While in 1987 the democratic opposition still spoke of ‘mixed ownership’, by 1990 all major political forces supported full-scale privatisation.
This first era, which was mainly dominated by the socialist-liberal coalition, established the first ‘generation’ of native capitalists. Fidesz at first presented itself as a critic of the ills of privatisation but it soon became evident that they merely wanted to create their own bourgeoisie. They continued to privatise communal services, land, and other types of property in favour of the new bourgeoisie, which the government has itself created.
The newly introduced bourgeois class has flourished in the Fidesz era sinceit first got its capital from public funds; it has an especially parasitic character. Under a nationalist banner and with the help of the upper strata of society, certain groups of the renewed power elites are today trying to make their privileges inheritable, thereby avoiding competition with foreign capital and the protest of Hungarian society. Fidesz only criticised liberal capitalism insofar as the liberal bourgeoisie was connected to foreign capital or other political forces (social democrats or liberals). It has no objection to the strengthening of its own bourgeoisie; in fact, its present policy has been targeted at the creation of a loyal ‘service class’, which happens to be bourgeois. As a result, it has restructured the system of distribution and deepened and widened the social-cultural inequalities of society. The same can be seen across the region: in Ukraine, Latvia, Bulgaria, Belarus, and Romania.
We are not surprised at the authoritarian turn taken by the regimes in Eastern Europe since the new oligarchic capitalism can only be maintained through authoritarian means. As I have said, one cannot build a bourgeois democracy without a democratic bourgeoisie. Eszmélet developed several prognoses for this already by the time of the regime changes.
The new ruling class pinned its hope on Orbán’s ‘Christian-national’ government: it represents their values, social interests, and poor culture, while privileging their capture of budgetary resources. These layers of the new ruling class specifically fell back on government support because they did not know how to discipline the constantly growing masses of unemployed and impoverished workers. In other words: how can an impoverished society be restrained and disciplined under a recurring economic crisis?
The social-liberal coalition that governed prior to Fidesz from 2002 to 2010 had no solution, oscillating as it did between old-fashioned ‘routine’ neoliberal economic policy and propaganda based on EU gobbledegook. Hence their political representation lost its base, and it dissolved into a shrunken group of irrelevant ‘survival’ politicians. While the far right (Jobbik) gained strength, the ‘Christian-National’ coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party won the 2010 elections on a super majority mandate that allowed them to enforce their own ‘solution’ to the nation’s problems. Since then, Jobbik has changed its image to downplay its racism, its anti-Semitism, and violent hostility to the Roma. Subsequently, Fidesz has shifted to the right to pick up the votes of the far-right in the 2018 spring elections.
In Hungary and other Eastern European countries, those in power soon came to understand the need to introduce an authoritarian regime which would hollow out the parliamentary form and political-party system. They promised undisturbed mechanisms of governance to both the European leadership and the Hungarian public in return for European legitimation of their so-called ‘system of national cooperation’. Everyone who could or would not fit into such a framework came to be considered an enemy of the nation: communists, atheists, liberals, Jews, Roma, and foreigners and all of their supposed ‘patrons’. The anti-Semitic campaign against György Soros is a classic example of populist demagogy comprising the ‘struggle’ against multinational capital, as is the fight against refugees and migrants symbolising national self-defence against ‘aliens’. Nevertheless, it is very doubtful that Orbán will continue to block immigrants from entering the country; ten per cent of working-class youth have left Hungary in a very short space of time. Capital needs new cheap labour and thus refugees. This will in turn decrease the price of the labour force. Many believe that it is the ‘liberals’ and ‘socialists’ who are bringing the immigrants in, but in reality it is capitalism that produces immigration by uprooting people in and outside Europe, while the bloody wars of the US and NATO produce refugees.
The elections in April 2018 demonstrated the conservative, backward nature of the country, with Fidesz winning two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The nationalist party stoked the fears of the poor strata of the population in rural areas with populist, far-right anti-migrant propaganda. In Budapest, the anti-Orbanist opposition won, but in the absence of any real left-wing opposition.
RN:Despite the dire situation you have described, there have still been sparks of resistance to the Orbán regime. For instance, the protests against the closing of the Central European University (CEU), the struggles of public sector workers, the fight against the closure of the Lukács Archive. What opportunities do you see for resistance in the coming period?
TK: The closing of the Lukács Archive symbolises the profound hatred of Marxism and socialism. Not long ago the statue of Lukács erected after 1989 was demolished. The struggle to protect CEU has also been lost. Political liberals have no real social roots in Hungarian society.
The main political question in Hungary at the moment tells you a lot about the severity of the situation. On the one hand, you have those liberals and social liberals who want to collaborate with Jobbik against Orbán; on the other, there are those who think this is insanity. The former orientation totally discredits ‘progressive’ forces, and from this perspective it logically follows that they do not have any kind of economic programme that can challenge Orbán.
The mainstream liberals and ‘socialists’ speak only of political and juridical problems, they speak only about the ‘restoration of democracy’ in Hungary, but for the majority of people in Hungary, democracy is about social, economic, and political rights and practical possibilities. The most the ‘socialists’ can speak about is some kind of neo-Keynesianism, which I believe is impossible within our historical conjuncture and in the region. In Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, people feel that the ‘oppositional parties’ are not proposing any serious alternatives, much like everywhere else in the world. In Eastern Europe the social democratic vision of a new ‘welfare state’ is nothing but a shallow utopia lacking any material and social basis. In Eastern Europe the welfare state was – state socialism. Do we really want to go back to it?
Another decisive question is whether a ‘New Left’ emerges with the strength to challenge the hold of mainstream liberalism on our region. The best grassroots organisations deal with the problem of poverty; but how can they defend this society against capital, against the state, and so forth? These small organisations are very important, but they do not have a political party. And because the poorest stratum of society will not vote, these organisations do not have enough social weight to have a meaningful impact on politics. However, they are morally, politically, and, in every sense of the word, very good, potentially anti-capitalist, organisations. But there is little practical experience to demonstrate that the precariat can be organised at all. Historical experience suggests that the subproletariat in its ultimate despair may support any political force that exhibits strength and promises support (as with the rise of ethno-nationalistic, right-wing populist parties).
RN:Could you tell us a bit more about these organisations?
TK: Unfortunately, the anti-capitalist and anti-systemic organisations and networks are deeply divided among themselves. One can distinguish three currents: the Hungarian United Left or Magyar Egyesült Baloldal (Mebal), which brings together groups such as Attac Hungary, Foundation Hungarian Social Forum, etc. Most of its initiators and activists are Marxist intellectuals, mainly of an older generation. The members and supporters amount to a few hundred. As is the case with similar groups in Western Europe and Russia, this network is not, for now, concerned with the founding of a political party but focused on social projects that are meant to serve the protection of the lower classes. The other key task of the anti-capitalist left is to spread the idea, theory, and practical tools of social self-defence against capital. In public statements, Mebal emphasises its rejection of the foundation of new political parties under current conditions, because it considers it impossible for the radical left to get anywhere close to parliamentary representation without significant financial means and infrastructure, and especially without widespread popular support. I repeat: According to Mebal, a leftist turn can only be imagined if the question of property is placed at the centre of the struggle; we need to start a fight for the legalisation of communal property forms, productive-economic self-governance, which goes beyond market relations.
The second significant current is the party Green Left (Zöld Baloldal).
The Green Left was formed in 2009 as an association of the Hungarian Workers’ Party of 2006 (Magyarországi Munkáspárt 2006), a member of the Party of the European Left, and other groups; from 2009 to 2015 it was a member of the Greens – European Free Alliance. The party has never managed to cross the electoral threshold.
The third camp in the anti-systemic left consists of anarchist and anarcho-communist groups, which compete amongst each other. These groups attack both the state and any traditional form of political organisation. They embody the idea of the left as political subculture. Happenings reported in the liberal press are more important to many of them than mass action. The representatives of this camp see themselves as anti-fascist and anti-racist.
All these groups are part of the region’s anti-capitalist traditions, which through the self-organisation of society want to disconnect themselves from capitalism. Those traditions can be traced back to 1905, 1917 and 1989-1991 in Russia and the Soviet Union, to the years 1945-1947 in Eastern Europe in general, to the Yugoslav experiment, and later to the workers’ wing of Solidarnosc in Poland and the self-organised workers’ councils and workers’ committees in Hungary in 1956 which strove for the socialisation of state property. Under the pressure of the neoliberal global order and capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe, however, it is hardly possible to powerfully reconnect to these radical experiments of self-organisation. Nevertheless, even today, years after the insurrection of 1956, the Hungarian state expends a great deal of energy in disowning the memory of 1956. A propaganda campaign as has never before been seen, alongside mega-conferences at universities, are spreading the Fidesz programme of ‘national understanding’ and the message of legitimising the current system. At the same time, since 1989 the tradition of the workers’ councils of 1956 is being either completely concealed or falsified. This is more evidence for the extreme weakness of the labour and trade union movement still 25 years later. Nationalism is the best and most effective weapon against socialism. We can see it in the light of all historical experiences.
RN:So despite the weaknesses you have identified, do you see a possibility that things could take a turn for the better for the left?
TK: The key question is whether or not it is possible in today’s situation to build up ‘organised centres’ of anti-capitalism. This is not about building a bureaucratic apparatus. These ‘centres’ are the self-organisations of producers. The idea of a network-like organisation, which already appears in Lenin’s writings, has a certain genius to it, both in an ideological-theoretical and a practical-political sense, for it searches out the weak points of the capitalist system. The network to which I am referring includes features of a voluntary organisation during the process of creating workplace-based and neighbourhood-based social communities. The real anti-capitalist content comes when human communities are organised in the field of production as well. This is the essence of the Russian revolutionary experience: namely, anti-capitalism and the change of property relations.
We should not conceive of parties as political parties but as aids to create an anti-systemic alternative. The bourgeois parliament is unfit to realise any kind of alternative socialist vision. Whoever does not understand this will understand little of the history of the past century. The fundamental goal of the party that I refer to is the advocacy of a social development that is organised from below. Bourgeois democracies maintain the rule of the various elite groups, but the party should represent the remaining 80% of the people and advance the new society. This is impossible in a bourgeois parliament. It is the lesson of the Russian Revolution for today.
Over a hundred years ago the purely political revolution (without an economic and social revolution) – which in our days is no longer possible – started out from such an ‘organised centre’. Today capitalist exploitation in Europe is organised in a different way, the crisis has a different structure; therefore, the ‘organised centres’ also need to take on a different shape from those in Lenin’s time. It is likely that ‘civil movements’ will replace the political organisations that grew detached from the producers: new movements, which are organised for the solution of concrete economic and political-power issues in local and wider contexts. There is a general declining trust in party officials who are paid regular salaries for their work. Without a wider social self-organisation the total destruction of humankind could become a realistic scenario. A powerful anti-capitalist movement without a labour movement is impossible. In a situation in which capital and the state effectively keep social movements away from the workplaces, comprehensive attempts at organisation involving the sphere of work would be of particular importance.
However, the most complicated problem is that today’s anti-systemic organisations are not reaching the young workers and have not even given top priority to this. The capitalist organisation of labour has been fragmenting the organised resistance of the working class, and its consciousness has been effectively manipulated by the ethno-nationalist and racist propaganda eclipsing the outlook of socialist class struggle; moreover, capital intends to form new military zones worldwide, which always result in destruction and mass flight. These masses are being configured as the new enemy: as Orbán stated recently at the inauguration of a monument: ‘our main enemies are the migrants, the Soros-plan and Marx’. The ‘Soros-terv’ (‘Soros Plot’) alleges mythical global forces, which seek to destroy European civilisation through the settlement of migrants in Europe. From Trump to Orbán, in defence of capital, there is a great variety of ‘new’ images of the ‘enemy’.
RN:You mentioned Lenin, which brings me to my final question: you have claimed that ‘the main elements of Lenin’s Marxism are relevant even today’. Could you elaborate on how Lenin’s Marxism is relevant to the political conjuncture today in both Hungary and elsewhere?
TK: I believe the main ways in which Lenin can ‘speak to us’ today can be briefly summarised as follows, under the rubric of the class struggle against nationalism and capital:
The challenge for today’s left is the constitution a new social subject, independent of liberalism, within the dispersed masses of working and oppressed people. It is unavoidable that the left will have to do the painstakingly hard work of developing large-scale organisations from very small ones, combined with developing a radical socialist programme, both at the local and global level. The work of Lenin is indispensable in this regard. It is impossible to build such a left within a small country in an isolated manner. Without anti-capitalist, anti-systemic traditions there is also no internationalist movement as we learn from the intellectual heritage of Lenin.
I also believe it is of the utmost importance that the left restores the political and moral credibility of Marxism, since many people in the former socialist countries identify the ‘left’ with the upper strata of society. It is all the more urgent because thanks to this mass disillusionment, many workers are joining the far-right political forces.
An important element of Lenin’s political and moral integrity was the courage to take a stand against the system, to go against every injustice, every crime that this system inflicts upon people.
Last but not least, Lenin is relevant in terms of the need to create a link between revolutionary intellectuals and the working class (bridging the gap between theory and practice). This is crucial in conceiving the transition to a world ‘beyond capital’ (István Mészáros), as there is no solution within the capitalist framework. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, environmental destruction, war, and genocide are inescapable aspects of this barbaric system. Lenin is the ‘theoretician of practice’ (as Gramsci put it) – his ‘actuality’ consists in raising these problems to the level of a political resolution in the organisational form of the revolutionary party. This, however, took place in the era of revolutions. For our conjuncture we too have to prepare for a new revolutionary era, because it will not come about by itself. We should not be afraid to be accused of ‘utopianism’ for holding onto such a framework. One thing is certain, however: the key to the ‘leap beyond capital’ lies not in the alienated sphere of bourgeois politics and its violence and treachery but in bringing revolutionary politics into the sphere of production, into the sphere of everyday life. Lenin would say we must not only Occupy Wall Street, but the factories and our workplaces as well. Realising this goal, as I have already mentioned, will require much hard work and sacrifice. Within our present conjuncture, recognising the opportunities that allow us to start breaking down the divide between revolutionary intellectuals and the working-class movement, that is where the ‘alternative’ is situated, and the possibility that a new ‘renaissance’ of Marxism will be born. I of course am not conceiving of such a revival in a deterministic, teleological sense; history, rather, is an alternative process in which socialism has great chances because there are no other real alternatives to capitalism. This is the reason why Marx is so reviled in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, in the absence of a socialist perspective humankind might face total self-destruction. This is also a realistic alternative.