How 2000 people made an impact at a time when society was silent: András Bozóki on the rolling transition of Hungary

In this discussion, RevDem Managing Editor Michał Matlak discusses with András Bozóki about his last book, Rolling Transition and the Role of Intellectuals: Case of Hungary, published this year by Central European University Press, which tells a compelling story of the role of intellectuals in political and social change that took place in Hungary between 1977-1994.

András Bozóki is a Professor at the Department of Political Science at Central European University and research affiliate at the CEU Democracy Institute. His main fields of research include democratization, de-democratization, political regimes, ideologies, Central European politics, and the role of intellectuals. Importantly, in 1989 and András Bozóki participated in national roundtable negotiations, and in 2005-6 served as Minister of Culture of Hungary.

Michał Matlak: Why did you choose the concept of rolling transition and how is it different from other competing concepts that explain what happened in Hungary, both before and after 1989? What was the role of intellectuals in the whole process?

András Bozóki: I observed an unusually large proportion of intellectuals in the regime change that occurred in Hungary. I wrote on the participants of the roundtable talks in my previous studies and books, and I thought that it is worth observing the role of intellectuals in the Hungarian transition in more detail.

What was interesting is that there were different periods that I discovered after making 200 interviews and studying the samizdat journals and the topics of the intellectual debates. I could identify five different periods, and these were far broader and longer than simply the period between 1988 and 1990. We can focus on the crucial moments of political change, but we can also take the broader perspective, the more incremental developments, and the larger picture of what happened here in Hungary.

I realized that the intellectuals who participated in the process were vastly overrepresented in relation to their social proportion. Out of the five different periods, one was the period of dissent, which lasted from 1977 until 1987. This was characterized by the activities of freelance intellectuals, sociologists, philosophers — literary people — including their activities like writing articles for the samizdat, the underground journals. They were paying attention to what was happening in Poland’s Solidarność movement, and what was happening in Czechoslovakia in the artistic dissident circles around Václav Havel. The Hungarian dissidents did not form a movement initially. It was rather an invisible network of circles and groups which were interacting with each other. It was characteristic that these intellectuals were divided already under the state socialist regime. There was a post-Marxist liberal strand, and a more nationalistic literary circle. These people were not close to each other, but over the decades they started cooperating to achieve the common goal: a radical reform, and later the regime change. That is the first period.

The second period was the open network-building, when suddenly political change sped up, and the dissidents suddenly found themselves on the streets organizing social movements and political parties. They had to open the relatively closed circles of samizdat intellectuals. They had to quickly learn how to give speeches to tens of thousands of ordinary people, so they had to learn a more direct way of communication. They had to transmit their own “culture of critical discourse” — to use Alvin Gouldner’s term — to a broader audience. This period of open network-building was dominated by movement politics. This short but significant period lasted from late 1987 until late 1988.

In 1988, there were new political parties in Hungary already. There was not yet a democracy, but there was already party pluralism. Why? Because intellectuals had different groups from which they created different parties. Large segments of the society were still relatively passive. As compared to Poland, the difference is huge. In Poland there was a major umbrella movement of “Solidarity”, but much less pluralism. So, in Poland they first constructed democracy and then pluralism, while in Hungary there was first pluralism and later democracy.

Then came the third period: 1989. These divided opposition groups realized that the only way to compete with the Communist Party was to unite their forces. The way to achieve this goal was to create the Opposition Roundtable. At several points one can detect the Central European references in the Hungarian story. First, they tried to follow the Polish model, the pioneer country of anti-communist movements, with its roundtable talks. However, in Poland a more corporative system emerged in which the “Solidarity”, the official trade unions, the Catholic Church, and the Communist Party equally found their place. In Hungary, quite to the contrary, the fragmented opposition parties united their forces, which later could negotiate with the Communist Party and the so-called “third side”, which included those organizations that were invited by the Communists. At the roundtable talks everybody agreed that the transition ought to occur in a nonviolent way. Nobody wanted to repeat 1956 when people died on the streets.

Therefore, it is also characteristic in the Hungarian transition that nonviolent freedom was as highly valued as freedom. Both were equally important value.

People wanted democracy to be achieved in a nonviolent way. Apart from some minor radical groups, nobody questioned this agreement on either side. So, the third period of rolling transition could be characterized as an elite negotiation, a sort of elite settlement. Different elite groups reorganized themselves. They accepted the common goals: nonviolence, a completely new constitution, free elections, and radical change in the institutional setting. Probably the only revolutionary moment was a referendum on the unsolved problems of the roundtable talks in November 1989. This referendum gave a sweeping support for the opposition.

The fourth period started in the spring of 1990 when the representatives of the new political parties, emerging from the dissidents and the democratic opposition, found themselves in the parliament. The composition of the new parliament, following the first free elections, was highly unusual. With a bit of simplification, we can say that a government of historians faced the opposition of sociologists.

Again, one could detect an overrepresentation of intellectuals in the first democratically elected parliament. Dissidents who were “living within the truth” collected a remarkable moral capital in the society. Speaking in the first parliament was very different from later decades, because back then philosophers gave superb speeches, giving abstract references to complex ideas. As new politicians they were struggling to find their voice, their place in this parliament and they tried to professionalize. Many of them realized that they would not be professional politicians, because it was a different job. Politicians had to sit on various committees, they had to be a good organizers, administrators, and speakers who were able to reach broader segments of society, and participate in legislative work on a daily basis. That’s a different story. As I said, most of these activists were writers, philosophers, artists, journalists, and so on, and obviously not everybody felt qualified for this job. They participated in politics to advance democracy but not for becoming professional politicians. Therefore, again, just a minority of the intellectuals stepped up to the next stage.

And finally, the fifth period was the one between 1991-94. The story finished in 1994 because, in a broader, social sense, it was the endpoint of the Hungarian transition. Around 1991 as democratic politics was established, new pro-democracy initiatives emerged which became critical towards not only the former communist regime, but to the new political parties and the behavior of the new elite. These critical intellectuals participated in a new social movement called the Democratic Charter. Spokespersons of the DC criticized the new government and the new parliament in the name of democracy. Hungary had a democratically elected government, but when it abused some basic norms a civic movement started saying “we represent democracy better than you”. Speakers of the DC claimed that they “represent democracy as a whole” while the government followed its own partisan interests. That contributed significantly to a new debate about the content of the new democracy.

Where is the concept of a “rolling transition” in this story?

By “rolling transition”, I mean a peaceful, transformative process with permanent fluctuation of participants. Throughout these five different periods, all were dominated by intellectuals, but not the same people. From one stage to the other, only 20% of the previous group moved to the following one. And again, from the next epoch only 20% moved on. There was always a huge fluctuation among the participants.

This is fundamentally different from the old picture of revolutions, when there is a vanguard group, like in the Russian Revolution, which takes over and speaks on behalf of the working class and creates a party led by intellectuals, but claims to be the fist of the working class.

The behavior of participants in a rolling transition is also different from the conceptualization of the intellectuals as a New Class. By the notion of New Class, I mean that intellectuals are considered as an independent class which follows its own class interests. They are neither the spokespersons of the bureaucratic stratum, nor the working class. They cannot be considered as agents of the capitalists, but those who recognize their own class interests. There is a big tradition of the New Class literature from Bakunin and Machajski until Gouldner and Szelényi. Many observers were misled by the proportion of intellectual participation around 1989, claiming that basically these people wanted to represent their own class interests. However, they were sort of unselfish. It was like a relay race that, when they felt that they were not competent to participate anymore in a certain phase of the change, they just quit and stepped back, and other people came to the fore.  Writers and freelance intellectuals were quickly replaced by constitutional lawyers and economists when there the dynamic of change arrived at constitution making at the roundtable talks. When it came to the Parliament, suddenly representatives of other educated groups arrived: the doctors and teachers. Those who are closer to the people in the local districts, and not the philosophers, who tended to leave the scene of power politics. Later, with the new movement era, freelance intellectuals, journalists, artists, writers, sociologists, literary people came back. It is quite striking to recognize the fluctuation and circulation of intellectuals in different epochs of the transition.

How many people participated in the whole process?

Altogether about 2000 people participated in the whole era of rolling transition. You might say that is not a lot. But then, there were 20,000 people who could read the samizdat and about 200,000 people who participated in the street demonstrations. Their impact was multiplied over the years in which not only the samizdat, but Radio Free Europe played a role. It is interesting how 2000 people could make an impact at a time when society is rather silent.

There were no strong social movements against the communist regime, because the Kádár regime, unlike its Polish counterpart, fragmented and atomized society. Therefore, intellectuals became the substitutes of democracy, and, at the end, they became forerunners of post-communist capitalism. They were opening the door for the liberal democratic capitalist regime. The 1980s was a neoconservative decade in the West. So, the new politicians in East Central Europe quickly accepted the idea of an unregulated free market and liberal democracy in one package. This approach dominated at that time which shaped the direction of change analyzed from a history-of-ideas point of view.

Out of 2000 people, almost 90% were intellectuals, slightly less than 1800. I collected the names and professions from different petition campaigns and other oppositional appearances, in which most activists indicated not only their name but profession as well. Some people failed to mention their profession, so I had to search after them. The core group was only 100. Maybe that is very few, but perhaps this is just enough. They played crucial roles in the transition process. In the meantime, the Communist Party had their membership of 800,000 people, but this number collapsed within one year. The impact of the 2000 people suddenly became huge by the referendum of 1989 in November. It was a time of rapid change in every aspect.

How would you define them in your story? How are they different from, for example, doctors? One obvious difference is that the intellectuals were more often engaged in various kinds of fields related to humanities. The other element would be probably the way they see their role. So, what is the most important point that differentiates intellectuals from educated non-intellectuals?

Very good question. It refers to the definition of intellectuals, which is not always easy. Intellectuals are more than just the educated stratum, but education is part of their identity. Antonio Gramsci wrote that everybody can be an intellectual because it is the movement which makes intellectuals and not a school or university. I think that it might be true in exceptional occasions, but it is a rather extreme position. The other radical stance was represented by Julien Benda, who claimed that intellectuals should be universalists. They should serve grand ideas in the fields of science, philosophy, religion, but they should not be engaged in party politics. For Benda partisanship is treason, the betrayal of the universalist position of intellectuals.

To sum up, I would say that intellectuals are those people who have the knowledge to understand social processes, so they are not focusing on their own profession exclusively. They are curious to go beyond their own profession and they have a willingness to participate in public debates. There are several university professors who are excellent in their own research field, but not intellectuals. What makes them intellectuals is to go beyond the narrow framework of their own profession. Intellectuals participate in public debates related to common good or public interest. They act within the civil society and contribute to the formation of opinions. So, being an intellectual is not just a professional role, but a social role, which makes them different.

One can argue that we don’t need this type of intellectual anymore — that this is an old school phenomenon with roots in 19th century Russia or 20th century Poland, Hungary, and Czechia, not to mention the active role of the Paris and New York intellectuals half a century ago. Raymond Aron argued that modern societies do not need intellectuals because they are universalists, potential troublemakers, and not particular experts which is needed in the contemporary division of labor. For Aron, a liberal democratic capitalist society needs only experts because they dig deeper into their profession, while intellectuals are shallow, even if they cover broader discourse.

I would say that every society needs the role of social critic, because that is the function of self-reflection. You have to be able to reflect your own position and your friend’s position, the group’s position, and also your country’s position in the world. Nothing significant can be left un-reflexive.

Only those people can be reflexive who are able to think in broader terms, even if they fulfil a smaller social activity. Therefore, intellectuals are different from politicians, from professors, different from those journalists who just write their articles and transmit what other people say without reflecting on that. It is a dying species, some people say, but those who are saying this are following a strictly market logic — that we need people who are functional to the society in a material sense.

If we take a look at the history of liberal democratic capitalism, the regime always produces its own opposition, its own cultural critics. In a pluralistic society there are always people who criticize the regime. Cultural figures, celebrities from John Lennon and Allen Ginsberg, to contemporary critics. The regime was flexible enough to pay attention to this criticism and then make it part of the culture. The counterculture was initiated by critical intellectuals even if the regime could absorb these critical aspects later on.

Typically, authoritarian regimes do not tolerate criticism, and they tend to consider these people as the enemies of the regime, for good reason. Therefore, intellectuals are much more important in non-democratic, unfree societies or authoritarian regimes, when the voices of the people are oppressed. That was exactly the case in Poland with Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronisław Geremek, and others, just like the artistic opposition in Czechoslovakia, with Václav Havel and his circle, and just like the Hungarian opposition movement during the rolling transition. These countries were different, but the social function of the intellectuals was similar, and this role was played by those who were brave enough to take this position.

But, after the regime change, in the era of new “wild capitalism”, these people were sidelined in Central Europe. This was the time for professional politicians, new capitalist entrepreneurs, and multinational firms to enter. The general mood favored the view that we don’t need these abstract ideas like human rights, civil liberties, humanization of power, civil disobedience, and the like. ‘These are all outdated ideas, and let’s now focus on productivity, efficiency, the market economy and modernization of the economy’, they thought.

You’re writing that modernization became an ideology at that time. What do you mean by that?

We know from the history of sociology that modernization was an important social theory in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was very close to functionalism, which reduced society to a set of systems and subsystems. It also suggested Westernization as an unilinear way of development. Thirty years after, in an ideological vacuum, many former reformist communists and former dissidents picked up the notion of modernization because it was relatively neutral, and it could serve as a bridge between liberals and socialists against the nationalists. In the early 1990s the notion of neoliberalism has not been used yet. It appeared in the discourse at the turn of the millennium only.

So, the socialists and the liberals used the notion of modernization to avoid ideologies. It’s a very broad political concept. Modernization itself became an ideology of elite-driven transformation, suggesting that “we are the experts who introduce capitalism because we know how to do that”. That is a basically an anti-populist, technocratic argument.

The nationalist vs. liberal discourse was replaced by a technocratic vs. populist discourse after the transition. The 1990s was dominated by a sort of neoliberal, technocratic modernizationist discourse. As a backlash to this, after 2000, Fidesz, which used to be a liberal party in the early 1990s, started to use the discourse of new populism. There is a pendulum between neoliberalism and populism, and from this perspective it is unfortunate that the values of the former dissident intellectuals were swept away so quickly. At the turn of the millennium, a new populist discourse was established, but maybe that was unavoidable.

Let me go ask you about the relation between the intellectuals who are part of the party in Hungary and the dissident intellectuals. I wanted to ask you about the dynamics between the two groups, whether it is possible to switch between groups. How were these two groups similar? How were they different? I remember a conversation with Lech Wałęsa about the 40th anniversary of Solidarity, and one of the reasons he gave when I asked him why it was a success, he said that it was because the party intellectuals got to know the West, became disenchanted with communism and just jumped on the same boat with the dissidents. What are your views on that?

From the late 1970s the Kádár regime became more reform-oriented and less ideological. The first generation of communists was uneducated and ideological. The new generation was more educated, careerist, and anti-ideological. Their working-class background became more distant as well. They held university degrees. Miklós Németh, the last communist prime minister, spent one year at Harvard, for instance. Members of the new generation of communist officials openly claimed that they were not interested in big ideas. They became totally non-ideological and therefore, the liberal intellectuals could take the lead in transforming the dominant discourse. This discursive power was amazing – the power of critical discourse. Everybody was very critical of the regime, including the techno-bureaucrats of the regime themselves. The party members accepted this and cooperated.

What were the generational differences among the intellectuals?

A relatively large group of people were members of the Communist Party in the 1960s. They were philosophers and some sociologists, but it was not tied to a particular profession. Yet they became disillusioned in 1968, when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. They were either kicked out from the party or they left voluntarily in the late 1970s. Of course, there was an older generation who left the party in 1956, the so-called 56-ers.

So, maybe we can differentiate between four generations. One was never communist – that is the post-1945 generation. They were members of the Smallholders Party, and some civic parties tried to reorganize themselves after the Second World War, but those were already crushed in 1948.

The second generation was the 1956-ers who were communists when they were young. But they became disappointed in 1956 and they became opposition members or passive onlookers. Many of them left Hungary and returned in the late 1980s only.

The third generation’s intellectual core grew out from the Budapest school of Marxist philosophy who became critics of the regime, both on empirical and theoretical grounds, in the 1970s. Broadly speaking, the ’68 generation was really the backbone of 1989. They made the networks, the movements, and the political parties. They were, let’s say, 25 years old in 1968, and around 45 in 1989. So, they were the core of the intellectual protest attracting thousands of followers.

Finally, the youngest generation was the Fidesz generation, who were 25 to 30 years old in 1989. They have been in power continuously since 2010. Of course, of those who were there at the time of transition, 95% of them are not in the party today. Many people left Fidesz, and the liberal Fidesz was totally different from the current authoritarian state-party.

However, the core leadership of Fidesz, like Orbán, Áder, Kövér, Németh and some others were already there in 1989. So, the case of Fidesz proves a certain vanguard pattern too: The closest circle around Viktor Orbán survived politically, and they are still in power. In terms of the sociology of intellectuals, the dominant pattern is the rolling transition, with some individual exceptions to this rule. Orbán participated at the roundtable talks as a liberal oppositionist. He was already preparing to be a power politician.

I think we can distinguish between movement intellectuals and those who were attracted by power. Movement intellectuals were the eternal opposition, while the others were those who took a political role later on.

Could I ask about the group that we didn’t discuss much yet — the intellectuals in the opposition who didn’t embrace, either instinctively or fully consciously, the ideas of political liberalism like human rights or constitutionalism? I wanted to ask about the group who we could call a right-wing, far-right, perhaps populist. One of the examples in your book is the writer István Csurka. Was this group important in the whole process?

The nationalist group, to which Csurka belonged, tried to revitalize Hungarian national identity on moral and historical grounds, while the liberal socialist ex-Marxist intellectuals were not looking back so much to the history. For them, the past was the Kádár regime, and the different epochs of communism, but they did not go back before 1945.

This nationalist or populist group, the “népi” group in Hungarian, tried to make connections with the social criticism explored by the populist writers in the 1920s and 1930s. They looked back to the Horthy era, and they tried to find some roots in social criticism on this ground. They problematized the situation of Hungarian national minorities living in the neighboring countries, and that a democratic Hungary should represent their interests as well.

However, they were ambiguous concerning the question of borders. They did not speak in class categories but wanted to find a Hungarian way. They said “we have to move on in a Hungarian way, a third way, between East and West, between the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the US-dominated Western liberal capitalism on the other. We are here in the middle, in Central Europe, and we have to follow our own way.” But it was not entirely clear what they meant by their own way. Not the party state, not communism, but also not the multinationals-dominated Western capitalism. Not the big firms, but small gardens.

The idea was a Hungarian garden. That everybody could be a little producer, a property owner. Nobody would be very rich nor very poor — they could have a decent lifestyle. That is the agricultural, sort of nostalgic dream of a small-scale democratic Hungary, which had not really existed before. I think it was important because it represented an alternative vision to Westernization and modernization.

As for Csurka, he was also an antisemitic thinker. He was a writer and playwright, who wrote literary books, but he became a far-right antisemitic politician after 1989. He used to be vice president of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, but then he was marginalized and finally kicked out from it. He established his own Hungarian Life and Justice Party in 1993, which later became a radical right-wing party. Cas Mudde would call him a radical right populist. But antisemitism was not strong in the Hungarian society, so Csurka marginalized himself incrementally. His biggest success was to drive his party to parliament, passing the 5% threshold. He was talking in an old-school, historical, populist language with antisemitic undertones. Fidesz used him to present itself as the centrist party, sort of conservative liberal right-wing party, and Csurka was presented as the far-right.

But Csurka’s party was soon replaced by Jobbik, a more modern, radical, anti-Roma “law and order” party. That resonated much more in Hungarian society. Jobbik also had a paramilitary wing the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard). Fidesz also used the Jobbik leader, Gábor Vona, instrumentally to locate themselves in the political center.

The impact of Istvan Csurka was serious in the long run. Fidesz today does refer to Csurka as one of their intellectual predecessors. In 1989 they were not friends. Csurka was considered as an extremist figure. However, Fidesz has managed to mainstream extremism over the past decades. Something which sounded very radical, very far-right before now is the center. That happened parallel with the process of autocratization in Hungary.

You looked at the whole process from three perspectives. First is your personal participation in the roundtable talks, the other is the edition of the documents of these talks. And then there is a third one, because of this book, for which you conducted 200 interviews. Could you tell us a bit more about these perspective?

As for the methods, I am very much in favor of methodological pluralism. I don’t like if there is only one method, whether it’s methodological individualism, quantitative method, or purely interview-based qualitative methods. I try to use newspaper articles, interviews, content analysis, theoretical approaches, and descriptive statistics. Also, as you mentioned, I was a participant of the talks which gave me an opportunity for direct observation of different types of political strategies and behavior. I did not think at that time that it would be an academic project for me afterwards. I participated in a working group of the negotiations discussing the guarantees of nonviolence of the transition, which was a minor segment of the negotiations. I was also a member of Fidesz at the time for a few years. However, my book is not my memoir. It is not a subjective account at all. Everything is double-checked and based on solid facts, at least that was my aim. Theoretically this book is based on the theories of intellectuals, elites, and political change, just as on the analysis of dominant ideologies. This is an interdisciplinary exercise at the crossroads of comparative historical sociology and political science.

And what will be the subject of the next book, if I may ask?

My next projects include a shorter theoretical book on the analytical approaches to the intellectuals, which will also discuss some empirical comparisons on different time periods and geographical regions. The other book, which I will be coauthoring, will be on the dynamics of authoritarian takeover by analyzing the Orbán regime within the European Union. How could an anti-democratic regime emerge within the group of democratic countries? What are the structural conditions of such a situation and what is the role of agency? I think it is an interesting puzzle which needs to be investigated.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

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