Back to banality - G.M. Tamás

A Jobbik march in Hungary

Article from G.M. Tamás on the continuities/differences between the 'actually-existing socialism' of the past and present-day reactionism in Eastern Europe.

Ce n’est pas la crainte de la folie qui nous forcera à laisser en berne le drapeau de l’imagination.

André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924)

As a former dissident and as an opposition politician and theorist around 1989, I am of course frequently asked to draw a balance sheet of the great changes in Eastern Europe. There is a huge temptation to contradict myself so as not to get bored to death by my own responses, but I think I should resist it.

Also, in spite of being a witness and a participant, I am not interested in the vindication of my glorious generation, nor in a discourse of nostalgia, disenchantment or recantation. We have seen and heard all this, and enough is enough.

So the question is, ‘What is left?’

In 1989, there have been two dominant myths: one of ‘restoration’ and one of ‘renewal’ or of a ‘new beginning’. Some political forces seemed to feel that we had only to pick up where Horthy, Piłsudski, Brătianu, Masaryk have left off and recreate the respectable garbage that has led, inter alia, to the second world war, and pretend that ‘socialism’ was only an interlude or a bad dream. There are still politicians and journalists who keep talking like this, but they are not taken seriously, even if they happen to have the parliamentary majority – for completely different reasons. Other forces (usually called ‘liberals’, somewhat imprecisely) seemed to dream that they should adapt what they perceived at the time to have been the best thinking in the West, customarily some combination of constitutionalism, human rights, free markets, anti-authoritarian attitudes, ‘openness’, yes to globalization, separation of church and state, ‘Europe’ and the rest. The forces of the past (i. e., the successor parties of the pre-1989 so-called communist ‘state parties’) joined one or both of the dominant myths, and the overall mainstream ideologies are still a combination of the two, nowadays mostly described as pro-Western or anti-Western, ‘modern’ or ‘anti-modern’.

Another dividing line between political forces is ‘anti-communism’, made interesting perhaps by the conspicuous absence of any kind of major left movement advocating radical change. It all refers to the past. ‘Communist’ in contemporary Eastern Europe means mostly something or somebody linked historically to the former régime or reminiscent of its authoritarian practices. In Hungary for example, the Orbán government is often called ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ in the same ‘liberal’ newspaper column, referring vaguely to a preference for state interference in the involuntary bearers of such terms of abuse. But the protest movements and their advocates as the present writer are similarly dubbed ‘communist’ (and CIA agents!) because of their egalitarian and welfarist demands. But when media people discover that these movements are at the same time feminist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-censorship and environmentalist, they feel compelled to designate them as ‘liberal’ because something that is not reminiscent of the pre-1989 dictatorships cannot be of the left. (While former Party functionaries who have meanwhile joined the most hidebound, chauvinist and clericalist reaction, continue to be classified to be on the ‘left’ still…)

Be this as it may, the ideological chaos, enriched by historical ignorance, only shows that the nature of the new East European societies is mostly established by analogies and parallels rather than by attempts at definition on the merits.

The main obstacle here it is a fundamental misconception.

The simplistic dilemma of whether this is a restoration or a new birth is caused by the idea that the pre-1989 East European régimes were socialist, so that capitalism had to be restored or created anew.

As I have described it elsewhere, Soviet-style planned state capitalism was not ‘socialism’ in a normative sense, certainly not in the sense in which the various strands of the workers’ movement and of Marxism have conceived of that state of affairs. It is not only that the law of value, commodity production and wage labour, a money economy and the class system remained in place together with a division of labour and a distinction between physical and intellectual work and with a state apparatus separated from the people. The main difference between ‘socialism’ and capitalism, according to the advocates of the Soviet system, was the alleged end to private property, a misperception based on the incomprehension of this concept, however well defined by political philosophy since Aristotle and by political economy at least since Rousseau. Obviously, the separate ownership of the means of production – be the owner a person, a group of persons or an institution, such as the government – does not obliterate property, however specifically the property rights are exercised once as they are exclusive and absolute. Enterprises were not owned by the workers’ council of the enterprise, but by the overall state. True, commodity exchange, prices, profits etc. were not mediated by a free market (if there is such a thing) but by the state planning authority with its goals of accumulation, growth, industrialization and ever-heightened living standards not clearly distinguished from goals attained by means of taxation. But the adjustments operated by the market in ‘free market economies’ are still operated through calculations by planners and managers, based on meticulous statistics. Institutional regulation of the market is commonplace in all ‘modern’ systems, the only discernible difference is of policy, not of systemic substance.

The intuitive idea that the so-called choice between planning and the markets was sufficient to define two wholly distinct economic and social systems was further strengthened by the impression that planned economies were bound to impose poverty and backwardness – and to impose total state control over society. This impression is now scattered to the winds by the fact that the new East European economies are by no means ‘richer’ or more developed than they were in 1989, living standards for the great majority are slightly lower that they were before, employment, housing, health, education, public transport and, most important, equality are in a state of free fall and the old imbalances between East and West persist.

Also, the experience of fascism demonstrates that the dominance of private property could not and would not prevent total social and political control by the state.

The whole idea of 1989 was theoretically mistaken.

This is not to say that the East European (and Asian) ‘state socialist’ societies were not peculiar. They were a strange version of the modern, that is to say, capitalist system, put into place by an anti-capitalist movement with its own social and moral commitments. First of all, we have to understand that capitalism as such does not mean that political power belongs to the bourgeoisie. This was not the case in most bourgeois societies where capitalists had to share political power with feudal landowners, with the aristocracy, with a traditional civil service or public administration, with the army, the Church, royalty, with an ‘adversary culture’ run by intellectuals, academics, journalists and la bohème and, when the time came, with the trade unions and the socialist and communist parties. Bourgeois class rule was, at the best of times, a fragile thing, and it is so today when the economy is not regulated by the owners, that is, shareholders, but by the management of multinational corporations and by the bureaucrats of the international financial institutions and global regulatory bodies and, still, by the nation-states with their vast administrative networks, some of them military, including the all-powerful intelligence and security apparatuses. Currency is in the hands of central banks, commercial, tax and customs legislation is more pettifogging and intrusive than ever before, not to speak of patent, copyright, technological and environmental regulations more stringent than anything Stalin could have imagined.

‘The dictatorship of the proletariat’ did not replace the domestic bourgeoisie with another local ruling class of apparatchiki and intellectuals, especially as there was no bourgeois ruling class in Eastern Europe to begin with, and the little there was, was ethnically distinct, mostly German and Jewish, hence politically ineffectual. But banking and manufacturing was mostly owned by foreign – Western – finance capital and its local auxiliaries. The only influential local (rooted and embedded) élite group was the landed aristocracy and the landed gentry (the local bourgeois were their flunkeys), as most East European countries were semi-feudal and agricultural (large landowners played an important social and political role everywhere up to the end of the second world war). It was this group that has been chased away by the ‘communist’ parties whose most durable historic achievement was to complete the unfinished bourgeois revolution in the East of Europe.

It was, after centuries of personal dependence and a sort of a caste (‘estate’) society (Ständestaat), where birth privilege, political and juridical status and religious denomination defined someone’s place in the order of things, that people experienced for the first time the impersonal, abstract subjection characteristic of modern society, where social position is – increasingly – biologically, juridically and culturally random and where social mobility is mostly determined by the vagaries of the market rather than by being born the serf or the liege of some grandseigneur. This is what has been – and to a certain extent still is – regarded by conservatives as the supremacy of the vulgar, of the noisy, uncouth plebeian: la république des avocats and so on.

This has been radicalised by ‘communist’ rule through a set of preferences brought along by the victorious workers’ movement. It was an absolutely unprecedented transvaluation of values: ‘real socialism’ was the very first society in which the paramount virtue was physical work. Physical work had been despised by millennia of aristocratic rule: all political systems, all philosophies and all religions were extolling the virtues of the spirit; the priest, the warrior, the statesman, the thinker, the ascetic or monk were superior to ‘physical’ people, soul higher than the body, reason superior to passion, meditation superior to action, free – that is, unpaid, voluntary or playful – activity for its own sake considered superior to paid work assimilated (rightly) to a servile condition, blue blood and white hands superior to their opposites. Even in ancient democracies, the need for paid work robbed one of his right to vote, only leisured gentlemen – whose obligations were exclusively political, or military, which is the same thing – had been regarded as fully human.

No society had hitherto the wherewithal to change this, and privilege was always seen as a recompensation for natural superiority where the base were supposed to serve the noble. In many cases, you can find echoes of this in the stress given to people’s ‘education’, ‘expertise’ or ‘talent’ as a justification for higher status and for higher income, even today.

That ‘uneducated’ proletarians (in fact, mostly people without formal education maybe, but frequently ascetic doctrinaires addicted to serious reading and bent on self-improvement, teetotal, frugal and diligent: the first socialist and communist workers’ generation was very much like this, in a hard-drinking, swaggering, macho environment; usually better informed than present-day think tank people) imposed a social order in which theory was supposed to be the servant of practice, politics the servant of the economy, and knowledge in general merely a tool, but the instrument of liberation, no less. There was also an old-fashioned, incipient feminism, too: the first free abortion (and divorce) on demand and the first free daycare system (and the replacement of the figure of the obedient housewife by that of an active female producer out in the world at large, sharing household chores with the man) in the world was adopted by the Soviet Union – until the conservative turn which also resulted in the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’, i. e., the acceptance of nationalism, the main legitimating ideology of inequality in modern society. This is why the revolutionary régimes had been accused by their conservative foes with ‘immorality’: no respect for feminine chastity, modesty and restraint, no esteem for ‘spiritual values’ (especially, of course, religion: an officially atheist system would be still abhorrent to most right-thinking persons), no reverence for tradition (meaning, of course, internationalism and a sympathy for people of colour, victims of Western imperialism).

It is too easy to forget what a scandal this was; social democracy and the New Left have accustomed Western people to a few aspects of this, to a watered-down egalitarianism; paradoxically, the conventional and Victorian Stalin era has made East Europeans to forget the early moral priorities of the old left; these societies are now re-importing part of them under the heading ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ or ‘Western liberal’ ‘values’, but of course without the essential feature, the superiority of the body over the soul, of work over leisure, of the poor over the rich, of this-worldly self-abnegation over a self-seeking cult of preferment and success (carrière ouverte aux talents etc.). This revaluation of values was mainly ‘ideological’, but the egalitarian and puritanical spirit of ‘real socialism’ has prevailed until the bitter end, in spite of élite privileges which now seem insignificant; but the cult of the worker instead of the knight and of the saint, the ideal of producing more and better without an incentive of material reward other than the common good and the public interest are unique in history, in spite of having fallen prey very fast to the usual corruption and disappointment and, then, mendacity.

Culturally, morally and politically speaking, there was no ‘ruling class’ under ‘real socialism’ where material advantage, state power and moral authority fused into one: to the extent it has existed, it was hidden; and its ranks were always replenished from proletarian sources. The supremacy of the Party apparat was not legitimised and justified, but denied. Most N° 1 party leaders were once workers who had barely finished elementary school, if that; and proud of it. Even the ill-famed Jewish intellectuals sometimes at the helm of ‘communist’ parties were seen at the time as coming from a persecuted and despised minority just one step from the ghetto and from the pogrom: another reversal of the customary order of precedence and respectability.

Without a serious consideration of this moral element it is impossible to understand why is the myth of the ‘socialist’ quality of planned state capitalism so tenacious, especially for generations which are not aware that socialism or communism is not supposed to put an end to inequality only, but an end to exploitation and alienation, an end to value and an end to the state. For communists, limited government may be better than unlimited tyranny, but no government is the objective. State property may be more useful for egalitarian redistribution than private (more exactly: individual) property, but no property is the goal. Planning may be better for attaining civilising and social goals than the market, but no separate economy is what communists are supposed to want. Enlightenment may be better than religious bigotry, but no domination – supernatural or mundane – is the aim. And so on. In this sense, communism was never even attempted.

Leftist critiques of ‘real socialism’ have observed from the 1920s onwards that there was no real advancement for the actual working class under ‘communist’ rule, as the workers were no true owners, they had no independent organizations, they could not represent and voice their class interest, they had no means to resist technological discipline, bad working conditions and low wages and that their symbolic pre-eminence was practically worthless. ‘Proletarian consciousness’ vested in the Party was just another lay religion and that the heroism of the Stakhanovite udarnik (‘shock worker’) who produced 300% of the pre-established standard was a delusion.

The criticism is clearly justified.

But I was talking precisely of this lay religion. This transvaluation of all social values, this reversal of the moral order of all hierarchical societies was the essence of ‘real socialism’ even in its late, congealed, frozen form when the leaders tried to blend it with a sort of half-hearted consumerism, meritocracy and political demobilization. But the positivism and progressivism remained in place, and so did the hostility to transcendence and concomitantly to selfishness, both considered ‘solitary vices’.

Rationalism, too, in the sense of a revolutionary confidence in reason, remained important. Revolution – as something navigating uncharted waters by definition – needs theory, while conservative defenders of the status quo need only tradition, piety, deference to inherited authority. They do not propose, they only dispose – and wish to preserve things which appear valuable to their elders and betters. The revolutionary legacy of state capitalism steered by an anti-capitalist proletarian party demanded that its rule be based on correct philosophy and correct (social) science. This is why the régime was more ferocious towards rivals than towards enemies. The mere existence of ‘another Marxism’ for example was intolerable as it robbed the Party of its intellectual foundations, hence its hatred for social democrats, left communists and other heretics. After the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the intellectual participants were separated in two groups: those coming from the pre-war right, were decorated, the former communists and socialists thrown in jail. The former could be won over, their sin was venial, but the latter were seen as traitors, misinterpreters of the true doctrine, so their sin was mortal. It was in a way an intellectual’s paradise: literature, philosophy, art, music, theatre, film, book publishing, learned periodicals, popular science were seen as the most important affairs of the state, since in the absence of a real religion, high culture was the only ideology that could be disseminated in a strictly godless society. So its great importance was not a quirk, it was a necessity. Created for the élites and for the ‘clerisy’ of the hierarchical order, high culture had to become the property of the many; in the absence of an aristocracy, it was supposed to define the historical style of that age of the common man (and perhaps, woman).

After the inglorious fall of the régime – surprising for us rebels – one of the most conspicuous elements of the prevailing mood was that of an abdication: nothing was more popular than the demand for an end to ‘socialist’ exceptionalism: the phrase ‘we want to be a normal country’ can be heard these days in the Hungarian protests, it is the most important message of 1989. Normal, that is, wealthy, unequal, competitive, nationalist, peaceful, content: watching soap operas or being racially prejudiced without guilt.

Still, some ideological elements, originated by the workers’ movement, continue to be influential, albeit in a vulgar guise, mostly in the mistrust for riches, for the state and for law, all seen as something to do with power and not being what they appear to be. Inequality is accepted, but not as justice, only as an unavoidable situation which is ‘normal’.

A local bourgeoisie has failed to materialize as it did not during the Habsburg era, either. Capital is still – or, rather, again – owned by international finance, multinational corporations, even by foreign governments. The bill for investments in the public interest is usually footed by the European Union. The spoils system is habitually based on European crumbs falling under the Eastern table, distributed among themselves by West-hating, Euro-sceptic, ethnicist local bosses. Power over people’s lives appears as elusive and occult or, at any rate, distant and incomprehensible as before. Political liberty refers to things of lesser importance. Political pluralism and parliamentarism have decayed into a contest between groups of thieves. Political ideas are insignificant or non-existent or, at best, irrelevant.

The impression that liberal constitutionalism, the division of powers and the rule of law are peculiarities of rich Western countries or luxuries the penniless East cannot afford, and that the continuing contrast between core and periphery seems to be destiny – the way of the world – is by no means false in my opinion, but the mixture of cynicism and despair which would habitually accompany this impression is shocking. Political attitudes may differ, but the defunct ‘socialist exceptionalism’ descending to the level of a recognition of our being provincial, backward, second-rate, poor and ignorant – whether it causes indignation or resignation, emulation or rejection of ‘the West’ – results in a profound and dispiriting self-hatred and self-contempt. Eastern Europe is symbolized in its own eyes by the figure of the immigrant waiting for acceptance from rich foreigners he or she envies and finds oddly ridiculous. We see ourselves as supplicants, as poor relations, tolerated as long as we are economically useful. Small wonder that poor immigrants are becoming jihadis in the slums and industrial suburbs of Britain. It is a nice irony that UKIP is quite popular among East European immigrants as it is anti-European (and anti-system) like themselves, regardless of the fact that UKIP hates them as the wrong kind of Europeans and hates the EU because it lets them in.

Demotic anti-communism has contributed to the unpopularity of any belief in radical change, as radical change appears to be a thing of the past, in other words, the (idea of) future is in the past. If the movement which has fostered a belief in progress is dead – not to speak of the links of the progressive creed with the Gulag, the Cheka and with mass executions and generalized fear – what kind of progress can you expect? Progressive ideas imported from the West – such as equality for women, gays, ethnic minorities and immigrants, tolerance for junkies and other poor petty delinquents, sympathy for victims of sexual abuse, social assistance for the unemployed and the homeless and for undocumented aliens etc. – are seen as destructive fads. (As I am writing, the Hungarian deputy prime minister declares in the far right Magyar Hírlap that behind the protesters there are secret conventicles such as the US gay lobby which want to bring down his government. He is deadly serious.)

These fads might apparently defend the powerless, but as they are forced upon us by rich foreigners, they must serve some mysterious oppressive end. At the same time, the East European left, pursuing similar ends, finds itself uncomfortably allied with Western imperialism.

Descriptions such as this you may find in the radical East European political literature in the 1890s. Max Nordau’s Degeneration and Oswald Spengler’s Decline are immensely popular, again, with East European conservatives who are seeking salvation in pre-war chauvinism, monarchism, militarism and clericalism, bursting occasionally into hoots of laughter at the incongruence of it all, as the necessary spirit of deference, respect, self-discipline, piety, traditionalism and servility, not to mention religiosity, are nowhere to be found. But the erstwhile radical criticism of all this reactionary nonsense is nowhere to be found. To invoke the mysterium tremendum of encountering a prince of the blood would be greeted with derision, but proposing a more just society would hardly raise an eyebrow. It is beyond comprehension, it is worse than absurd.

This explains our famous sense of humour. Humour is always a foe of the sublime – someone told me once that humour is always on the right – as it is bound to present generosity as hypocrisy and moral rectitude as the folly of funny-looking eccentrics. The nihilistic humour of contemporary Eastern Europe affirms that there is nothing of intrinsic worth in society, apart maybe from passing pleasure and from temporary human warmth. Thought is idiocy. Art is vain pretension. Philanthropy is perversity. Public debate is cacophony. Public service is a pretext for self-seeking misdeeds. Law is lawyers’ tricks. All government is capricious tyranny. The poor are disgusting. The rich are stupid. Foreigners are speaking in tongues and eating oysters, phooey. East Europeans are smelly. Women are sexually incontinent. Gays are shrieking in falsetto. Conservatives are fat. Liberals are Jewish. Socialists are crazy. Russians are peasants. Americans are imbeciles. Philosophers are bearded.

But this, in itself, would be more or less tolerable.

There is one point, however, which – consonant with the main neoliberal prejudice – has helped more to operate a reversal of that revolutionary transvaluation of values than anything else. The well-known contempt for the ‘spongers’, people drawing ‘welfare’, that is, various social benefits, unites middle-class and sometimes working-class people, conservatives and Blairites, fascists and Christians. The governing élites in Eastern Europe, very adroitly, very cunningly, knew how to ground this on the heritage of ‘real socialism’. The cult of physical work – accompanied as it was by full employment and by a high culture made plebeian – cannot, of course, address unemployment, precarity and the presence of a lawless underclass. The overarching concept of the proletarian is not identical with the mythical idea of the ‘organized’ factory worker (‘an organized worker’ has meant in the Habsburg monarchy and its successor states a trade unionist and a party member: the two were identical as in the English political term of ‘labour’) because that does not mean only ‘anti-capital’, but also ‘outside capital’. The manipulative notion of Mr Orbán’s ‘work-based society’ sounds very much like the Rákosi and Kádár régimes, but what it emboldens ‘us’ to do is, of course, that ‘we’ should abandon the poor (about 40% of the population on a sub-subsistence level) to their fate as they are immoral and racially distinct (Roma): they are supposed to be improvident, lazy, disrespectful, drugged, alcoholic and sex-crazed, reaching their dirty paws for the bounty belonging rightfully to nice people. But the trick is used everywhere else, too, in Eastern Europe. The universal fact that technological advance has made most people previously employed in the manufacturing industry and most services superfluous is ignored, it is transformed, indeed, into some sort of criminal condition, morally and structurally similar to the anti-popular bourgeois propaganda in the 1830s directed at the ‘criminal classes’ once engaged in ‘dirty work’, then based still on the ancient disparagement of the body and on the contempt for the servile condition of working for someone else.

‘Hard-working’ now refers to a privilege rather than to a disadvantage. ‘State-dependent’ mendicants seem to be unwitting agents of a ‘communist’ restoration who would resist the spread of an ever-enlarged middle class which is coterminous with ‘society’ as such. This is the ideology of the whole East European establishment, be it either ‘pro-Western’, ‘European’ or ‘nationalist’ and ‘pro-Putin’ or ‘Muscovite’. In other words, the apologia of the crudest kind of an oppressive class society.

This is countered by a ‘civil society’ resistance focusing either in a humanitarian fashion on ‘misfortune’ or on discriminated minorities (the homeless, drug users, immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQIIA people, abused children, battered women, prisoners, the physically and mentally ill, the old, the lame, the differently abled, the illiterate) who are lacking legal redress and whose dignity is denied – this resistance is just and it is what I support, too – but this resistance is foreign, on the one hand, to the traditional working class and, on the other, to a political rather than to a human rights approach. (In this, it is no different from what we see in most Western countries.) To simplify: the establishment avers that those groups are just parasites, and the NGO type, ‘civil society’ resistance replies, no, they’re not.

The understanding, not difficult for a Marxist, that both categories – labour subsumed to capital and people excluded from the capital-labour continuum – together constitute the contemporary proletariat, is signally lacking. But the problem here is further exacerbated by the ‘real socialist’ version of a Weberian protestant ethic of a this-worldly asceticism wherein work is the paradigm of any kind of selfless or unselfish, generous, community-minded behaviour, unlike in the Marxian world-view where work is the ultimate curse. The Marxist standpoint is still as scandalous as it was 170 years ago when the old man (then young) was scribbling at his Paris manuscripts.

A quarter of a century after The Changes, we are back to banality. Every achievement of high modernism appears questionable. Periphery capitalism is both recognized as fate and accused as ill-fortune. The new East European left is only recalcitrant and sharing in the general disenchantment. This time around, radical evil is rather boring. We dissidents may have been dupes.

All in all, a wonderful opportunity for fascists.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, 19/10/2015

Posted By

Jun 22 2017 21:15


  • The well-known contempt for the ‘spongers’, people drawing ‘welfare’, that is, various social benefits, unites middle-class and sometimes working-class people, conservatives and Blairites, fascists and Christians."

    G.M. Tamás

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