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Past in the Making

Michal Kopeček

The Many Moralists and the Few Communists

Approaching Morality and Politics in Post-Communist Hungary

Ferenc Laczó

Texte intégral


1This piece is intended as a contribution to the classic debate over the relationship between morality and politics. On a general level, it deals with the intriguing way in which this relationship has evolved in the contemporary era especially since 1989 in former communist countries, and with the profound manner in which this evolving relationship is bound up with the perception of the recent, communist past. In my opinion, simultaneous reflection on morality and politics should be seen as central to the understanding of post-communist revisionism, since moralistic as well as moralizing discourses have greatly increased their force and are enormously widespread in the political lives of countries which once belonged to the Soviet bloc. Moral credibility is conceived as a crucial form of capital, and moral blackmail often proves a most effective tool in the hands of those aiming to discredit others.

  • 1 Some illuminating pieces on the connections between power and morality, especially the way moralit (...)

2More specifically, I shall explore the continuities and discontinuities in the ways the two realms are connected in Hungary, and how this is interrelated with current Hungarian historical culture, which is also highly relevant politically.1 In doing this, I will point both to the announced “revision of ourselves” and the attempted revision of morals, consensually supported and, what is more, established as one of the central promises of the change of regime, and to the striking continuities. These can sometimes appear in novel forms which, however, barely hide the essential similarities of content. I shall use the complex and telling case of perceptions of the political and moral role that János Kádár played in Hungarian history, to illustrate a number of my more abstract points and to make some further ones. At the end of my paper, I shall make a number of recommendations.

  • 2 For more detailed description of this, see Péter Nádas’s Esszék (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1995), and his Kr (...)
  • 3 Miklós Szabó elaborated this theory, claiming that when systemic questions cannot be addressed, su (...)
  • 4 With the recent release of selected Michnik pieces from the past decade, there are now two collect (...)

3Let me first clarify my stance on the issue of moralizing politics and the understanding of the recent past, which I conceive of as simultaneous and interrelated processes in post-communist countries. The overall impression one gets is that even though manifold revisions were thought necessary in the transition/transformation period, with moral revisionism in particular declared as the normative preference, and thus continuities have been ritually condemned when they have been addressed, various sides have tended to accuse other sides of exhibiting continuity. Selfexamination has remained the exception rather than the rule, and therefore I would argue that self-righteousness still prevails almost unchallenged, while the superficial and seemingly enormous changes hide deeper continuities. The major trend in post-communist Hungary is to externalize blame and find others guilty, without groups and individuals openly questioning themselves or examining their own involvement. This type of thinking was described by Péter Nádas, among others, as the logic of dictatorships, which function precisely because they can often enough make people look for problems not in themselves but in their (human) environ-ment. 2 Moreover, they are able to deflect criticism from systematic problems and the mechanisms that perpetuate the dictatorship to individual sinners. This anthropomorphic conception of problems as human shortcomings makes people express dissatisfaction with their rulers in a way that sees their replacement as individuals the most they can hope for. In other words, attention is shifted to secondary issues.3 Moreover, the constant complaints uttered in the absence of the person who is held responsible, or even accused, are basic to such political cultures that are interrelated with the broader “cultures of complaint” so characteristic of Eastern Europe. Instead of creating forums to help solve problems, people often stick to forums which they know are not suited to such purposes. It is ironic that a habit which was one of the defense mechanisms under the former dictatorship (namely blaming) that could often be justified in that political environment (after all, it often represented the search for the responsibility of those who were unaccountable, and was thus, even if politically insufficient, certainly not unnecessary), survived the fall of the dictatorship to assume a more questionable role. Adam Michnik, among others, reflected on several occasions on the different status of the attempts to moralize (about) Communism and politics prior to and after 1989, claiming that many arguments that under the dictatorship could qualify as moralistic, afterwards would be no more than moralizing, even if they were used by the same people—which has by no means always been the case.4


4In this section I shall reflect on the major transformation in the way moral questions began to be related to politics. This had already started in the later decades of the communist regimes, when it was done most significantly by people who belonged to the opposition. The collapse of Communism and the way it has been understood in the mainstream, crucially including Communism’s moral delegitimization, enormously strengthened the novel way of relating the two fields, and moralized politics, at least on the surface.

5In mainstream Western political theory a certain difference between the spheres of morality and politics tends to be accepted. Since Machiavelli, as the history of political theory is conventionally narrated, the basic canon has been that what is politically good is not necessarily morally righteous, and vice versa. Politics is about the common good and power, and political acts should be measured by the utilitarian criteria of their usefulness in the first place—the end to a certain extent justifying the means. Thus, when we analyze these two spheres and their relationship, we ought to remember that politics is about good and bad, while morality is about good and evil. Common sense tells us that though the two standards cannot be completely separated, neither moral, nor political criteria can be strictly applied to judge the “other sphere.” Only a pure idealist would conflate these two types of criteria, and only a complete cynic would deny their interrelation.

6Starting with the war crimes trials that followed the Allied victory in the Second World War and the acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more forcefully in the 1970s with the signing of the Helsinki accords, Carter’s increased (presidential) stress on human rights issues and the emergence of democratic oppositions in East Central Europe, the idea of keeping morality and politics apart came under attack. How to reconnect them properly, how to promote a new, moral kind of politics, was high on the agenda of many individuals and groups in opposition already prior to 1989. Questions of dignity (which can and ought to be maintained in the face of political defeat), and the vision of history in which moral righteousness also has (at least some) political validity, were crucial to the self-understanding of the marginalized though often extraordinary intellectuals who comprised the democratic opposition in Hungary, a national case in some ways similar to those of Czechoslovakia and Poland. This revision of the relationship between politics and morality under Communism was clearly polemical in intent.

7While in power, communist rulers legitimized themselves in grandiose historical fashion, claiming that all history inevitably led up to their attainment of power. They claimed to think of human history as working according to knowable mechanisms towards progress and the ultimate attainment of an ideal society, and, in line with this, considered history to be an amoral court of judgment, distinguishing essentially only between progressives and reactionaries. In this epic struggle everything and anything was permitted on the part of the historically righteous, while their opponents were classified as enemies of human liberation. The supposition of their evil nature could then occasionally be scaled down to regarding them as people who had been misled into supporting the wrong side, who deviated from the right line and the good political nature of the “communist political animal.” Sometimes subjective supporters were uncovered as objective enemies (the “self-purification of the communists” was initiated), at other times subjective enemies were judged to have no objectively harmful impact (the “delay of complete purification” was allowed).

8In short, the communist project was a fundamentally moral one, but communists accepted a version of history that was meaningfully designed but fundamentally amoral in its unfolding. Hence, in the self-presentation of these regimes, communist crimes were without moral significance and deeds were to be judged only according to the utilitarian criterion of whether they had helped the greater cause (of progress and the ultimate attainment of an ideal society). The bet for or against Communism was more than somewhat Pascalian.

9Living under communist regimes and in such a(n) (a)moral environ-ment, members of the democratic opposition proposed a revolution of morals and human dignity. Dissidents in various countries of the Soviet bloc wanted to attain the recognition of communist crimes as crimes. This struggle for recognition was among their top priorities. Their consistently applied moral standard implied that the distinction between crimes and “progressive crimes” ought to be discarded, and that there should be no more political abuse of morals. A firm moralistic discourse ought to replace the communist type of moralizing, evidently based on double standards, on politically charged, only seemingly moral, judgments. With the (re-)introduction of a pure moral standard, they aimed at moral improvements, and at a widespread “revision of ourselves.” This moralistic wish for recognition was the strongest means of oppressed (and otherwise politically disarmed) minorities courageous enough to oppose the dictatorship which made claims on their lives. These people aimed at a nonviolent confrontation with the Soviet Behemoth, and ultimately at a moral delegitimization of the Soviet-type regimes, which would in turn trigger political changes.

10What the major intellectual trend critical of the regime used to do was to measure the regime’s realities against its own professed ideals, and to point to shortcomings. Though this type of socialist dissidence could at times be extremely powerful, it can still be regarded as internal criticism, since it shared the ideals of the regime it criticized. It was revisionist in intent. With the fading of reformist hopes, which suffered a severe blow with the suppression of the Prague Spring, this was gradually replaced by an external type of criticism, aiming to hold the regime responsible for upholding standards it did not declare as its own. This novel opposition strategy was first designed by Polish dissidents in the mid-1970s, whose ideas and practices clearly influenced Czechoslovak and Hungarian dissidents. Its most famous formulation can be found in Adam Michnik’s seminal essay “A New Evolutionism.” To use metaphors taken from the sports world, the most respected dissidents first tried to defeat communist regimes in what was a home game to such regimes, before they brought them to play an away game. In Hungary this trend could be observed with particular clarity, since several of the most important members of the liberally-oriented Democratic Opposition were previously disciples of Lukács, and wrote significant Marxist revisionist tracts. In Hungary, the turning point came around 1977. The volume Marx a negyedik évtizedben revealed that many former “revisionists” had reached the limits of Marxist criticism, and accepted its limited usefulness in understanding the world.

11Parallel to the emergence of democratic oppositions proposing and propagating a revolution of morals, which in some cases can be seen as replacing their former belief in the communist utopia, in recent decades, and not only in formerly communist countries, there has been much focus on oppression, crimes, suffering and immorality. This has led to the emergence of an historical-cultural environment abundant with demands for the recognition of crimes, usually the ones committed against one’s own group, however defined. Frequently, this has also led to severe competitions over which crime to recognize, on what level (with questions such as “genocide or not” high on the agenda), and in what way (providing restitution or not, to whom, in what measure or form, etc.). Though mutual recognition of oppression, humiliation, suffering, and dignity would be ideal, the current environment can be better understood analytically by using the approach and methods of comparative martyrology, as various (organized) groups are fighting for the recognition of their claim to martyrdom, while not being eager to recognize other groups’ claims, even if of similar nature. This is why much of this practice can be called moralizing; many lack the willingness to apply one single standard, and wish to further political aims with their morally charged arguments. Given the narcissistic nature of memory, which makes us remember the pain inflicted on us more strongly than pain which we inflict on others, some of this is understandable. I have to add though that agents aiming to establish what should be the relevant, remembered crimes are frequently not from among those who have personal memories of their cause. In sum, and generally speaking, the current environment is characterized by an unfortunate lack of interest and respect for others’ suffering (that would be similar to what is demanded of others), and only relatively few cases of conscious and honest self-positioning, in spite of the abundance of moral claims. It is an environment in which battles over memory and victimhood assume central legitimating importance. Therefore, both cultural and political stakes are simply too high for this practice not to turn almost completely into a competition over power.

12However we may assess such developments, they clearly imply that the question of evil is moving ever closer to the center of the stage, as the main political and historical problem of our age. Evil is now something we have to understand, condemn, and fight. Once again it seems to have become an unavoidable political problem, no longer a mere moral criterion. For Leibniz, the question might have been how to explain the (seeming) existence of evil in a world that is fundamentally good. For us, with the experience of the 20th century behind us, the problem is likely to take a different form: how can we recognize and try to understand evil without accepting it, and how can we best defend ourselves against its real presence?

  • 5 The work is one of the few important Romanian documents on the period, now available in English tr (...)

13The recognition of the presence of evil—this fundamental moral (as well as ontological) issue—seems to have played a significant role in the collapse of communist regimes, or at least it certainly influences the ways this process, culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1989, tends to be narrated in much of mainstream scholarship. Besides the story of economic irrationality, insufficiency, and bankruptcy, the focus is on crimes and what is presented as a moralistic (and post factum) opposition to the communist dictatorship, which can be called “human self-defense against evil.” This has a counterpart in the idea of resistance through culture, used by some prestigious intellectuals, notably in Romania, such as Patapievici.5

14In the case of Hungary, the significant presence of this moralistic dis-course is understandable in a certain sense, as it provides the only way to narrate how people from within and outside (divided over their judgments of the role of those working within the system and the merits of that system as well) could come to an agreement in 1989. Denying that what happened constituted an unprincipled, pragmatic agreement of elite groups, this agreement had to happen through a moral improvement in terms of the sides relating to each other while this improvement also had to take place on the communist side itself. The communist’s authority was rather weak, and insufficient without the addition of a source of justification in the form of a promise, a promise to improve. One might say that 1989 constituted a crucial chapter in their lengthy Bildungsroman. From a moral point of view, based on ideas of repentance and forgiveness, and an investment of hope in an increasing role for moral conscience, one can hardly deny them the right to attempt this. Curiously, with this shared acceptance of the need for moral improvement, the moral illegitimacy of Communism was accepted even by the (successors of the) communists. There was a curious moral self-delegitimization in 1989 in order to make a claim to starting anew, which from a critical perspective could appear like a general assigning of blame to one’s own side in order to pre-empt what would then be judged as mere “scapegoating.”

15Though its essential function is understandable, on the other hand, this discourse of the moral delegitimization of Communism does not make much analytical sense if one looks at the historical record. Skeptically, one might ask how it can be that certain crimes committed in the 1930s or 1950s did not delegitimize the communist establishment in the 1960s and 1970s, while they did so in the late 1980s? The intense moral questioning was preceded by the recognition of the system’s failure, and this bankruptcy made the immorality obvious, as the communist project with fundamentally moral aims and immoral means turned out to have achieved none of its aims—while unquestionably relying on immoral means. The events of major importance in 1956, starting with Khruschev’s secret speech, initiated an ambiguous admission of moral bankruptcy from the top, but in the absence of powerful enough reasons in other realms it failed to lead to a moral (and political) discrediting of the system. In 1989, the crucial difference was not the novel recognition of moral insufficiency, but the admission of political and economic failure, which was then automatically understood as a moral failure too. In sum, the centrality of moral discourse made sense politically, and its use was politically motivated. At the same time, being primarily politically motivated, it does not make so much sense analytically.

16It is of special significance that the morally dubious character of the communist era as such, its unacceptable immorality and unbearable moral record, have emerged as major discursive ways to address the period. One might go as far as to claim that while in power, the communist authorities took responsibility for everything (not necessarily in detail, but in general), so now that their project has proven a failure they have to take the blame for all the imperfections. Some claim that this is only logical; there is a certain logic in assigning blame and responsibility to them, taking their promises as the basis of judgment. However, this might lead to absurd conclusions, such as the not only false, but also (within core Western countries) anachronistic idealization of some other path of development, notably the essentialized “Western” one.


17To approach the new role of moral arguments in politics and the question of how this phenomenon is interrelated with our understanding of Communism in a more comprehensive manner, a brief presentation of the basics of societal transformation in the period under question focusing on public opinion is needed, together with some thoughts on the changes in the role of the historian. Let us now turn to these issues.

  • 6 The different pace of change in post-Communism was introduced by Ralf Dahrendorf in his famous ope (...)
  • 7 This could be reflected in scholarship by more attention to the basic failures to Westernize, such (...)

18The period since 1989 is often presented as constituting a major transformation, and even as an unprecedented wave of simultaneous major political and economic reorganization. On the other hand it can also be pictured as the time of the “great miracle of the small transformation,” since it has offered few opportunities for upward social mobility (though many might have converted various forms of capital into other kinds— primarily political into economic) and cultural change (as usual) has taken place at a much slower pace than political and economic change, and often in “unpredictable” (unforeseen, perhaps even unforeseeable) directions.6 Since the acceptance of capitalism and of growing inequality among citizens has certainly remained a minority position, the (by no means overwhelming, to say the least) support for the post-1989 transformation was to a significant extent based on optimistic predictions about the future. The failure of the new epoch to fulfill many of these expectations led to growing skepticism and disappointment within a few years after 1989.7 According to opinion polls, in the case of Hungary by 1992– 1993, negative sentiments concerning the changes were much more common than positive ones. Since then, this generally negative evaluation has become less widespread, but the initial trend (higher numbers of disappointed than of contented people) has never been reversed. In Hungary, the transition failed people exactly in the areas where they had strongest hopes: for example, that living standards would increase and life would become easier. Only a tiny minority feel such changes have actually occurred. Linked to this is the fact that favorable assessments (typically and somewhat enigmatically assumed to be based on nostalgia) of the previous regime and era (strangely enough, these two terms are often used interchangeably in Hungarian) remain strong, especially among the older and less educated parts of the population. Etatist and anti-capitalist opinions are shared by majorities on both sides of the major political divide, commonly referred to as the left and the right, while the number of people with liberal convictions has barely increased over the almost two decades that have now passed since 1989.

19What divides the two sides in Hungary most strongly is their relationship with the past, especially Communism and symbolic matters above all national ones. Since cultural issues have been moving to the center of contemporary political and academic discourse, as can be seen both in the unexpected revival of religious conceptions of differences and in the forcefulness of ethnicist biases surrounding the novel ways of dealing with “ethnic others” (emerging for instance in the enormous attention devoted to migrants and their specificities), it is little wonder that the issue of Communism polarizes people in post-communist times, especially if we also consider that meaningful options and alternative action plans are largely absent. Considerable political and cultural capital has been invested in order to create and strengthen this divide, and sometimes consciously, sometimes not, since it serves as one of the surest ways to strengthen allegiances, and to mobilize people in case of perceived need. In Hungary, the right-wing tends to maintain that its “righteous supporters” are still unfairly suffering from oppression inflicted under Communism and by the continuing dominance of people who profit from the legacy of those times, while the left can be held together by the fear of anticommunist, right-wing radicalism, aroused by regularly pointing to threats which can seem quite real in the light of the shaking of the previous (communist) anti-fascist consensus. The defense of the anti-fascist consensus, which has actually undergone multiple revisions since an openended discussion of the relationship between Communism and Fascism began immediately after freedom was won, is a major political demand in post-communist times. Given that right-wing conservatism and radicalism are related in ways that are rare in more solidly established Western democracies, where the level of knowledge concerning what is democratic and acceptable is higher, this threat is partly real. However, it is also frequently exaggerated for political purposes by the left.

20In such an environment of high hopes and constant promises coupled with the (on the surface almost universally agreed upon) agenda of moral renewal and political and cultural investment in divisions over matters of the past, it is easy to understand that moral questioning becomes all the more severe. Disappointed people who feel cheated and see much hypocrisy more easily become morally outraged when morally charged arguments are so widespread. Politicians employ such arguments frequently, and thereby try to control them, but they are often turned against them whenever they are not judged credible. It is a paradoxical though widespread phenomenon that people do not trust politicians but apply idealistic standards when assessing their performances.

  • 8 Mária Vásárhelyi, Csalódások Kora: Rendszerváltás alulnézetben [The era of disappointment: The cha (...)

21The growing gap between moral discourses and social practices is confirmed by the growing strength of anti-Communism in Hungary, including its radical variety The idea of holding people responsible for communist crimes specifically, or for Communism in general, has become more popular over time, though how one judges such questions depends largely on ideological and party preferences—so the change might be at least partly due to the growing political polarization in Hungary. Around 80 percent of right-wing voters favor the idea of some form of punishment being meted out. Around two-thirds of them would also support the exclusion of communists (though attempts to define this concept could lead to endless debate) from public life.8 Note that this would mean a huge change in the system, causing massive disruption to the other side while (if applied consistently) harming many in their own ranks too. It is difficult to write of a stable, established democracy when a substantial majority on one side questions the fundamental legitimacy of a large number of crucial current actors, and when both sides display great readiness to “uncover” the “criminal historical background” of the other side as well as the anti-democratic implications of having such a background.

22Having addressed the question of the role of Communism in the public and political life of post-communist Hungary, let me now turn to the case of professional historians. They have traditionally claimed to enjoy a calm isolation which allows them to research and write on more remote topics, and in earlier times many of them would not have felt comfortable having to offer politically relevant assessments. The role of the historian was traditionally understood as providing objective observations, balanced presentations and assessments. This detached scholarly practice crucially entailed the generally known and widely accepted norm of refraining from passing judgments, including moral judgments. To use Weber’s coinage, history was meant to be a value-free scientific pursuit as well. This ideal of the historian/scholar prescribes a high level of consensus, as it is understood that if two people were to be similarly objective they could hardly fail to come to similar conclusions and assessments, once they addressed their disagreements earnestly. This self-image and self-presentation as objective observer and presenter is based on a self-assured (and often unreflected) epistemological stance. It leads to the understanding of history as a set of answers and not as a relevant and intriguing set of questions addressed by an interpretative historical scientific engagement.

231989 also challenged the established, officially sanctioned (and therefore previously basically unquestionable) role of the historian, as selfdeclared, detached scholarly pursuits began to be uncovered, and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” attracted many in the humanities, especially among the younger cohorts. What the “hermeneutics of less naïvety” already reveals to us is that value choices and judgments, moral positions and agency are intricately bound up with the historian’s work, even if this has often been denied in the name of a “higher scientific rationality.”

24On top of this change in the climate of opinion, the study of the recent past provides historians with additional challenges to their traditional professional identity: How can they seem detached and objective when the political connotations of their opinions can be identified rapidly and with little difficulty? What is the “special access” that a historian has to the recent past, which is not granted the “ordinary concerned citizen”? Is the historian an expert of superior value on matters of the recent past or is he only one among many with different and equally relevant perspectives? These are all fundamental questions worth reflecting on.

25It is striking how closely one’s own (usually hidden, effaced) position as a historian tends to correlate strongly with one’s (explicitly formulated) general assessments, especially in highly contested political environments and where interpretations of the recent past can assume decisive force. History might be regarded as not much more than past politics, but then what if the politics of the present are so crucially connected with those of the past? This is characteristic of post-communist political environments, in most of which no political side possesses legitimacy that would not be profoundly questioned and ultimately denied by some, and attempts to obtain historical (or, more broadly, symbolic) legitimization often assume far greater importance than is customary in more firmly established liberal democracies.

26Both of these are the case in contemporary Hungary, making the ideal of an apolitical historian of the recent past almost unattainable in practice, even if it was theoretically possible. Still, even though the possibility of apolitical positions is difficult to defend even in theory, and few have recently tried to argue for it, convictions at the heart of the discipline warn us against moralizing in our argumentation. Through the language of their texts historians still aim at impartiality, as they did in the period when the traditional ideals were much more widely shared and were still considered attainable. This creates a paradoxical environment in which political stances and motivations are constantly exposed, although attempts are still made to hide them, as the ideal is to deny them as much as possible instead of spelling them out explicitly.


  • 9 Péter Balassa substantially criticized this distorted though unfortunately common relationship wit (...)

27Having discussed the current, novel interrelation between the realms of morality and politics and briefly contextualized this problem area in post-Communism (through reflecting on the perceptions of the legitimacy and credibility of the new regime, as well as of the historian of the recent past), let me turn to more specific Hungarian developments, the issues of greatest relevance in terms of morality and politics in this historical-political culture. As mentioned earlier, 1989 presented Hungarian society with the agenda of revising our ways (and ultimately ourselves), which featured a crucial moral component as well. 1989 and its symbolic apogee in Hungary, the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow sufferers, meant that though rules were broken at some point, they remained rules and were enforceable, even if only with significant delay. 1989 offered the comforting thought that although temporarily injustice might reign and immoral politicians might seem successful, ultimately the force of justice would prove stronger as immorality was, unavoidably, uncovered. This revision reached in 1989 was meant to express on the moral level that the original sin of Kádárism was without doubt a mortal sin, and the chance to recognize this was provided by history and by people’s untainted moral sense. In other words, the morally comforting thought was that historical justice existed, and to many this also implied that “history has proved us right.”9

  • 10 The point is made in János M. Rainer’s Ötvenhat után [After fifty-six] (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, (...)

28As dealt with in several previous in-depth studies, 1956 provided a crucial reference point in 1989. In my assessment, it served as the symbol of “no moral compromise” while a political compromise was struck. Contrary to its simplistic interpretation, 1989 was not a reenactment of 1956 which finally achieved its goals, although this is one of the claims most frequently made in political speeches delivered on commemorative occasions such as anniversaries. As has been pointed out by János Rainer, 1956 served as a warning and a threat in 1989, and recalling it pointed to the need to compromise.10 Strangely, already under Kádár the memory of 1956 (significantly suppressed and subject to many imposed taboos even when it was mentioned) served a similar function. It was meant to illustrate the superiority of Realpolitik over the irresponsible making of demands, to show that there were “walls,” to use the metaphor made popular by the movie by András Kovács from 1968—and it helped to show roughly where these walls stood.

29This real political lesson is also the great lesson of Polish history in the eyes of many. Heroism might be counter-productive even when coupled with righteousness, so goes the tragic conclusion that was drawn under Communism and that in many ways influences our present sense of realism. This is the realism of the resigned, which one ought to possess and bear with dignity, and which is often directly credited for the achievements of 1989. At the same time, I find it worth remembering István Bibó’s claim, which can be used to counter this attitude of resigned realism. Bibó points out that it can also be politically severely limiting to accept too much as inevitable, to rate one’s chances too lowly. In other words, one should not overestimate one’s possibilities (against which there are constant warnings), but neither should one underestimate them. In Romania, for instance, the constant references to terror under Communism, which are typical of the country’s post-communist anti-Communism (currently, in late 2006, receiving official sanction), and the accompanying perception of the “rationality of fearing the regime” back then, might be seen as the reproduction of what perhaps prevented the development of a political opposition—people did not believe that it could be done. Obviously, whether they could have (and therefore should have) had more faith, we shall never know. I only mean to point to one of the greatest analytical problems of the totalitarian model, namely its inability to incorporate anti-systemic realities and the emergence of oppositions and how it in some ways justifies the latter’s absence. In no sense do I wish to have the final word on this dilemma of what constituted over- and underestimation. I only wish to point out that what we need to ponder more is which of the two might have proved more damaging in Eastern European history under Communism, and which is the source of greater danger to democratic developments today.

30To return to Hungarian historical culture, as mentioned earlier, the Kádárist memory of 1956 was limiting, similar to its role in 1989. But in 1989 the element of “no moral compromise” was added to it, while the political compromises of the round-table negotiations were made. This can be judged as a moral pretense, a fictitious moral high ground, especially when the question arises: What was the legitimacy of the side representing the authorities? Who or what authorized these discredited and selfdiscrediting authorities? This is where the moral improvement argument plays such an important role. The authorities could be there because of their intentions—their declaration that they would seriously improve and change the ways of their discredited past.

31On the other hand, if we question this moral pretense, which undeniably played a role in the achievement of the agreement of 1989 and was required for the framing of the political compromise, the political compromise itself automatically becomes suspect as well. Those who question it also champion themselves as representing the “true (moral) spirit of 1989” (typically phrased as the “spirit of the changing of systems”). They are referring only to the “no moral compromise” part of the larger story, which also includes the curious (in theory unseemly though in practice possible) combination of “no moral compromise” and political compromise.

321989 presented Hungarian society with an agenda of revising our ways that featured a crucial moral component as well. There was agreement on this much, but how this revision ought to be carried out divided people and political forces from the start. This division (perhaps counterintuitively) grew even stronger over time. The nature of the polarization could be described as follows. One side argues that one could no longer (nor should one) believe in amoral politics. One should condemn those who did so and practiced it, and that justice needs to be served through our purification from Communism. The other side argues against what they perceive as a continuing political abuse of morals (in other words, others’ moralizing), and for the acceptance of “unavoidable continuities.” This is the program of the constitutional revolution, with lawfulness as its key term, which would also mean purification from the spirit of Communism, and its politically charged moralizing. This side, with “constitutional consciousness” on its banner, has maintained its dominance though it feels its values are under serious attack and not only because of actions taken by political forces, but also since they see too few people ready to defend them more than passively.

33The one side recurrently uses the rhetoric of furthering the revolution, which in its permanent form is in all likelihood the logic of civil war as well. Its picture of the recent historical world is painted mostly in black and white. It conceives of Communism as a megalomaniac attempt, an irrational and evil temptation caused by human hubris that meant the “rape of society” by a determined, fanatical minority. It prefers to focus on the symbolic parts over the real ones. The other picture we are offered is overwhelmingly gray. It prefers to look at the pettiness of the way the communist regime functioned, the abundant “compromises with reality,” the endemic corruption and widespread adaptations, and the multiple strategies of involvement. One might say the former upholds the image of Stalinism as representing Communism (Stalinism as the “ideal type”), and the latter that of post-Stalinism, which in Hungary’s case can be characterized more by pragmatism than dogmatism, and by power considerations based on the status quo rather than on the ideological commitment to transform and remodel.

  • 11 In terms of historical scholarship, social historical writings are rather typical in this vein, tr (...)

34The one side judges before making sufficient efforts to assess, the other aims to assess in order not to judge. It aims to provide explanations in order not to enter the terrain of justifications (and no excuses). The one side is primarily moralist, connecting the two standards (that of good and bad, and good and evil), the other primarily realist, aiming to show their difference. In their extreme manifestations, moralizing can lead to wholesale condemnation (implying that one “cannot look for the sources of legitimacy and valuable achievements of an evil system”)—the realistic approach to essential acquittal (it may have been evil, but more importantly it was good, not bad).11 Even in their more moderate versions they barely touch, as their fundamental principles are not the same.

35These two perspectives are connected to and, what is more, sometimes based on, the self-understanding (potentially invented) of the past behavior of the two sides. One side accepts no claim (i.e., accusation) about their involvement. Instead, they maintain that they represented the other (anti- or at least non-communist, and by implication better and more authentic) Hungary then, and still do so now. The other side sees its history as largely unproblematic too, as it is narrated as a story of continuous improvements, or reforms, which is not surprisingly the Hungarian left’s favorite word. They rely on a revised edition of the convergence thesis popular in the 1960s, which presupposed the conciliability of reform Communism and Social Democracy. The Hungarian left claims that this tendency of reform communists to become social democrats was the major engine of change in Hungary, stating both that it is beneficial to the country and that they can take credit for having done it. Though Hungarian communists have some evidence to support their claim to having possessed the strongest reformist tradition (the only really serious contestant before Gorbachev’s rise to power was Czechoslovakia in the 1960s), it would be false to believe that their reformism was aimed at the collapse of the system and the establishment of the present regime. Their failure (to reform the system) should not be accepted as their success (in overcoming it).

36It is striking how much of what one observes is shadowboxing related to Communism and communists. How many times are they condemned and accused without the label also being used as self-identification by others to whom this purportedly refers? This is a problem of great relevance, since it also points to the fact that the terms Communism and communist underwent so much reinterpretation that enormous confusion about them developed in the minds of many, and there is no consensus in sight about their basic meaning. Can communists refer to self-sacrificing idealists, opportunistic careerists, and immoral murderers and thieves at the same time?

  • 12 The Hungarian collection of some of his best texts is: Odo Marquard, Az egyetemes történelem és má (...)

37In my assessment, many people’s repositioning towards communists “out there” and the communist “within” has ended up being both confused (inconsistent) and opportunistic. Opportunistic in the sense that many perceive a need to falsify their pasts to some extent, to make it appear in a more favorable light and adapt it to the new situation and its requirements. At the same time, as they wish to defend themselves, they also feel the need to justify at least part of their past behavior and beliefs. This dual need (to defend and to give up) creates an exceptionally suitable environ-ment for confusion when people are thinking of themselves, which in the Hungarian case is furthered by politically motivated accusations and denials of any guilt that would have to be associated with involvement. An apologetically disposed discourse claims that moral awakening has already taken place and there is now no need for moral questioning, while an accusatory discourse condemns this view of 1989 as moral pretense. It propagates the need for total moral questioning, which usually includes almost everyone, except the propagators of such questioning themselves—who instead of having a moral conscience aim to become the moral conscience, as Odo Marquard so aptly put it.12 This polarized public space makes people relate simultaneously to the apologetic discourse and the criminalizing one. Except for a minority of the convinced (communists and anti-communists) who are consistent, people tend to employ elements of both understandings, which are in theory mutually exclusive.

38Thus, the question many individuals began to face in the post-1989 climate of opinion can be posed in the following way: How much to adapt and/or falsify and how much to defend and try to justify? They were not really helped by public discussions which might have set clear standards for them, since only few sustained dialogues emerged on patterns and strategies of involvement, collaboration and resistance, on how and why one was or was not implicated. These dialogical engagements tended to be restricted to smaller circles, to organs of small outreach, even though these are the relevant questions for the majority. They did not experience the extreme practices of communist regimes on the basis of which one can condemn them unequivocally and as regimes. To express this on a different level, ritual condemnations relate only vaguely to the lived experiences of “ordinary majorities.” Their focus (and basis) in the case of Hungary is primarily the 1950s, and since then a sufficient amount of time has passed so that it is no longer the actual memory of the majority.

  • 13 The theme of historical amnesia was made more widely known and discussed in Hungary (where histori (...)

39While the historical amnesia imposed by the Kádár regime (which desperately needed to forget, especially the dictator’s own past) is a source of common concern, the historical amnesia related to the Kádár regime itself is much less frequently a target of attack in this new morally charged environment. 13 Polemically, one might claim that the early post-communist years meant more of an attempt to erase the past, to move beyond by forgetting or unlearning it, than through a sustained engagement with it— overcoming through painful though needed remembrance. Michnik would often refer back to his belief in “amnesty, not amnesia,” perhaps exactly because what was much more widespread was the opposite—amnesia without the certainty of amnesty. At the same time, this habit of “pretending to be Western, denying ‘Easternhood’” has begun to change in the past few years, as promises of quick Westernization have not materialized, while the communist period is increasingly integrated into attempts at writing coherent national histories. This admittance also leads to growing skepticism towards the chances of full Westernization, and the realization that the Eastern (and also the specifically communist) features (such as the built environment much of which has been effaced from sight for a while, but some of which is now being rediscovered) are “here to stay.”


40Let me relate what I have so far described in rather general and abstract terms to the concrete case of the understandings as well as the historical and moral evaluation of the role of János Kádár. On the one hand, Kádár has been judged as a mass murderer and as a traitor to his country. Both of these are accurate statements. The latter accusation has clearly been overused in various explanations of Eastern European history, which far too often aim to assign blame for not making it great and successful (“Western”) by pointing to the workings of the “enemies of greatness and success.” Let me remark that the popularity of the traitor theses is related to the interesting paradox at the heart of much of Eastern European history writing: the double agenda to show “our” history’s basic Westernness while at the same time to continuously point out (and lament on) what we, as Easterners, lack to fully qualify as Western. There is a permanent oscillation between claims to Westernness and Easternness, typically hoping Westerners would regard us uncritically as their equals while being more critical among ourselves as Easterners (the Turkish variant of which is nicely exposed by Orhan Pamuk in his Istanbul: Memories of a City). In the case of Kádár the accusation holds; he undoubtedly proved to be a traitor, though in a moment in Hungarian history when a traitor had to come to power. In Kádár’s case the gravity of this fundamentally flawed moral behavior is even greater, since he initially supported the revolution. As Péter György remarked, he had to walk the thinnest of lines to arrive at his decisive judgment of 1956, an infamous counter-revolution. However, from a moral point of view, his case is indefensible.

41At the same time, he has also been praised not only for his rare political talent, but also for his “achievements in fostering Hungarian development” and “inclination to reform the socialist system.” The evidence we have also shows that his popularity was at times quite exceptional. Many in contemporary Hungary would like to forget about the masses that showed up for the May Day parade in 1957 and also those who paid their respects to him in the summer of 1989 after he passed away at the time of the collapse of the regime and a severe crisis in the economy. Kádár is no doubt a somewhat uncomfortable figure for the forces with democratic convictions in post-communist Hungary, since he possessed something peculiar, which could best be labeled “relative legitimacy.” Like his strange predecessors in Hungarian history, Francis Joseph and Miklós Horthy, Kádár consolidated power through executions, to become relatively widely accepted afterwards as the “comparably preferable option.” In other words, he might have been evil rather than good, but good rather than bad according to common perception. From a democratic point of view, it would be more comfortable to focus on the immoral beginnings of his rule and its final collapse (leaving out the May Day parade of 1957, the masses paying tribute in 1989, and the years in between), though this focus would exclude far too much of Hungarian history, and would aim to eliminate complexities that are disturbing precisely because they are so real.

  • 14 This justly famous play can be found in Kornis’ collected plays. See Mihály Kornis, Drámák [Dramas (...)

42The two perspectives (mass murderer and traitor versus great politician with relative legitimacy, and the most successful agenda that was conceivable, and could be implemented under the given circumstances) illustrate the unlikely coexistence of contemporary perspectives on Communism in Hungary, which oscillate between charged forms of moralizing and relativizing, and in which the moral and the political judgments are still largely separate, in spite of the reintegration of the two discourses that I described earlier. Kádár proved not only that he possessed no moral scruples whatsoever (though, perhaps surprisingly, a sense of guilt was not alien to him, as 1989 was to reveal, and was later to become the theme of Mihály Kornis’ famous play A Kádár-beszéd), but also as the political winner, for a very long time—nearly all his life.14 The moral discourse aims to overwhelm, to teach a lesson about morality (and immorality), but unfortunately the Kádár story is not the most suitable example with which to educate citizens. This moral discourse apparently shows that Hungarian history has a certain logic which we need to overcome (the logic of Francis Joseph, Horthy and Kádár). It teaches us not from the “pages of history,” but against what we can find there on our record. Ultimately, it teaches us to either blame history, or simply escape from it. Neither of these options offers us the chance for the needed confrontation with the past—a more substantial way of dealing with it.

43Though 1989 reversed the roles assigned to Imre Nagy and János Kádár in mainstream discourse, turning Kádár into the traitor, the clear opposition between the two of them, in terms of how their moral choices are judged, remained. Prior to 1989, immorality was politically irrelevant since communist politics replaced morality (Kádár had to be a moral agent in history since he was the communist political winner), now it is supposed to be politically decisive. In turn, the aim in 1989 was to make morality a substitute for politics, but since it did not really succeed (nor could it, since morality cannot replace politics), attempts are still made to achieve it. The parallel story of these two exceptional (and exceptionally important, and not only symbolically) figures in Hungarian history, whose fate was so intricately interwoven, remains to be conceived and written. When the painters of the historical picture of Communism start to use colors other than black, white or gray, a depiction of this intricate story that is not based on the opposition of the two of them (and the identification of one with evil politics and the other with high morality) is likely to emerge as one of their primary tasks. Then, the current belief in the possibility of effortlessly arriving at historically accurate and politically helpful moral lessons will finally be exposed and discredited.

44To gain a sense of 1956 as a valuable lesson, it somehow needs to be framed as a success, not a defeat, as many evidently understood it previously. Success is perhaps too strong a word, and I would prefer to use the word achievement, or contribution. A tendency towards this understanding is evident in the internationalization of 1956, a central feature of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the revolution which are taking place at the time of writing. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is being turned into Hungary’s current claim to have contributed to global historical development, and to have helped to achieve positive changes by its people’s heroism and political righteousness. Unfortunately, this story of achievement and contribution is based on a naïve moral reading of the past, which the American-dominated, post-Cold War master-narrative strongly supports, but which is largely external to the Hungarian story— the story of those who lived through it. Their strongest memories and focus are often on the painful period starting on 4 November 1956, not on the sadly short weeks of the revolution.

45As is currently becoming evident to many, 1956 is an unhappy moral foundation for post-communist Hungary. Though its moralistic message ought to be remembered, the immorality of the story overshadows the (often exceptional) morality of some of the heroes of 1956, and crucially, the connections between politics and morality are not what one would wish. After all, the morally righteous and the politically successful diverged drastically, and 1989 could achieve no more than a symbolic reinterpretation of the realities of previous Hungarian history. 1956 might have been an exceptional, “blessed” moment of moral awakening, but then again it was followed by a process of much humiliation and widespread moral degradation. This survival of the sense of humiliation alongside the awareness of the symbolic reinterpretation allows much space to claim victimhood, and to justify a political agenda with historical and moral claims. Therefore, efforts are still constantly made to moralize poli-tics in post-Communism, and (usually self-serving) moral and political claims are regularly made which pretend to serve historical justice “against Communism and communists.” This is what I regard as the central dynamics in the evolving relationship between morality and politics in post-communist Hungary as it relates to the communist past of the country. The full consequences of this tendency are yet to emerge.

  • 15 The complex and shattering story of Gimes, the Stalinist journalist who converted into a supporter (...)

46I would conclude with two proposals concerning the way I imagine the music of the future. One is that we should refrain from ultimate judgments, that we should replace the logic of the courtroom with attempts to understand the logic of various processes. It is not so interesting (if it is even possible) to attempt to classify someone as a good or evil person. It is much more fruitful to reflect on moral changes under Communism. This would mean that we finally ask questions in the following vein: How did someone who was originally entirely unwilling to collaborate end up as a diligent and “useful” informant? How did someone supportive of the communist revolution, a justifier of Stalinist practices, end up morally and firmly revolting against Communism (as the case of Miklós Gimes, among many other intellectuals involved in the preparation of the 1956 Hungarian revolution and in the revolution itself, attest)?15

47In other words, my recommendation is that establishing what constitutes a crime ought not to be regarded first of all as an issue of legal or institutional application, and thereby automatically as a question of power, which has been the standard line of public inquiry. This predominant line may be captured in the question: Who has a legitimate claim to power and thus the right to implement decisions about the (possible) criminality of Communism? Instead, I propose a public discussion of what was ethically and morally unacceptable and what was innocent, and morally pardon-able, since in spite of the superficial reintegration of the moral and political discourses in post-communist societies, sustained public debate of people’s moral performance under Communism has been lacking. This lack is actually all the more unfortunate because of the superficial reintegration of the two realms.

48My second recommendation is related to the first. It is a call to incorporate the two moral standards, the normative and the contextualist, simultaneously. One is an external standard to the communist era, conceived with absolutist aims. The other relates to what was perceived and accepted as normal at the time, and how moral norms were internalized and moral practices performed by contemporaries of the period. These two standards drastically diverge, and thereby offer the chance for recurrent condemnations and measuring of the real against the ideal. I believe it would be more appropriate, firstly, to argue on multiple and delineated levels, and secondly, possibly to relate these two standards more, in order not to judge people acting in constrained moral environments by unfairly high standards. We cannot do without moral standards, nor can we be moral without aiming to understand other people’s situations from the inside.


1 Some illuminating pieces on the connections between power and morality, especially the way morality was assumed to have a political role in the eyes of various significant authors of the Hungarian political traditions of previous centuries, particularly the 19th, can be found in the collection of Péter Dávidházi: Per passivam resistentiam: Változatok hatalom és írás témájára [Per passiva resistentiam: Variation on the theme of power and the pen] (Budapest: Argumentum, 1998). The pieces are more or less unified by their treatment of the relationship between power and writing, but morality is hardly ever excluded from consideration. Recently, a book-length discussion of this major theme was published by the leading moral philosopher (and as some would claim, moral authority) of Hungary, János Kis, as A politika mint erkölcsi probléma [Politics as a moral problem] (Budapest: Irodalom Kft., 2004).

2 For more detailed description of this, see Péter Nádas’s Esszék (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1995), and his Kritikák [Critiques] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1999).

3 Miklós Szabó elaborated this theory, claiming that when systemic questions cannot be addressed, such as “how society should be ruled,” as in a dictatorship, then secondary questions, such as “who should rule,” become central. He uses his theory to (partly) account for anti-Semitism, for instance. It can be found in several of his works, see for instance, Miklós Szabó’s Múmiák öröksége [The heritage of mummies] (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 1995).

4 With the recent release of selected Michnik pieces from the past decade, there are now two collections in Hungarian, which between them cover most of his important writings. Adam Michnik, Gondban a bohóc (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1996), and Harag és szégyen, büszkeség és szomorúság [Anger and shame, pride and sadness] (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2006).

5 The work is one of the few important Romanian documents on the period, now available in English translation. See Patapievici, Horia-Roman. Flying against the Arrow: An Intellectual in Ceausescu’s Romania (Budapest: CEU Press, 2003).

6 The different pace of change in post-Communism was introduced by Ralf Dahrendorf in his famous open letter: Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a Letter intended to have been sent to a Gentleman in Warsaw, 1990 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1990).

7 This could be reflected in scholarship by more attention to the basic failures to Westernize, such as absences, like the near absence of gender role changes (with some notable exceptions, though with restricted scope) or the weakness of environmentalism in the post-communist part of the world. However, it is rarely reflected, as the main focus is still on places where achievements in terms of Westernization could be noted.

8 Mária Vásárhelyi, Csalódások Kora: Rendszerváltás alulnézetben [The era of disappointment: The change of regimes as seen from down under] (Budapest: MTA Társadalomtud. Közp., 2005), pp. 59–61.

9 Péter Balassa substantially criticized this distorted though unfortunately common relationship with oneself based on the unwillingness to face one’s mistakes and admit one’s weaknesses to others. He claims that it is typically a sign of strength to admit and show weakness and should be perceived as that by others as well, which is usually not done. Since people are afraid of appearing weak and do not hope for understanding, this crucial point often remains unrecognized. Such an exposition can be found in his publication that was contemporaneous with the major events: Hiába: valóság [In vain: reality] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1989), but recurs also in several places of his posthumously released volume of collected interviews. Péter Balassa, Végtelen beszélgetés [Endless conversation] (Budapest: Palatinus: 2004).

10 The point is made in János M. Rainer’s Ötvenhat után [After fifty-six] (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 2003).

11 In terms of historical scholarship, social historical writings are rather typical in this vein, tracking modernization under Communism in a “neutral sense,” but usually (and paradoxically) at the same time attaching positive value to more modernization than less.

12 The Hungarian collection of some of his best texts is: Odo Marquard, Az egyetemes történelem és más mesék [Universal history and other tall tales] (Budapest: Atlantisz, 2001). In the pages of this volume, Marquard proves himself a sharp and witty critic of leftist moralizing, often at levels of quality that have been reached by few (notably by Leszek Kołakowski, for instance in his justly famous reply to E.P. Thompson).

13 The theme of historical amnesia was made more widely known and discussed in Hungary (where historical awareness and consciousness are rather highly valued, at least in recurrent declarations) by the controversial book of Péter György, Néma hagyomány: kollektív felejtés és kései múltértelmezés. 1956 1989-ben [Mute tradition: Collective forgetting and belated interpretations of history] (Budapest: Magvető, 2000). He deals with the historical amnesia of the Kádár era, which he sees as one of the crucial compromisos between rulers and ruled, a consensual “deafening silence” from which seemingly both sides benefited while much was lost.

14 This justly famous play can be found in Kornis’ collected plays. See Mihály Kornis, Drámák [Dramas] (Budapest: Magvető, 1999).

15 The complex and shattering story of Gimes, the Stalinist journalist who converted into a supporter of pluralist democracy (to be executed after the Imre Nagy trial) was written by Sándor Révész. See Sándor Révész, Egyetlen élet: Gimes Miklós története [One life only: the story of Miklós Gimes] (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet/Sík Kiadó, 1999).


Ferenc Laczó is a doctoral student at the History Department of Central European University, Budapest. His main research interests are political ideologies and nationalism, modernity and urbanism in East Central Europe (more specifically the symbolism and perceptions of capital cities), and the history of Communism in East Central Europe (especially cultural life, dissidence and opposition, and the legacy and memory of Communism)

© Central European University Press, 2008

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