Jászi Oszkár

TitleJászi Oszkár
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialLitván, György

Book. Title translated:
A 20th Century Prophet: Oscar Jászi
Series: Millenniumi Magyar Történelem, Életrajzok

PublisherBudapest: Osiris
ISSNISBN 963-389-391-7
Review year


Full Text

Being someone who often aimed at bridging the differences between various people and groups (for instance between the Left and national movements), ironically Jászi’s legacy has been highly divisive in Hungary. What is more, he has been among the “regularly condemned” public figures in 20th century Hungary: his views have been portrayed first as revolutionary (in the Horthy era) then as counter-revolutionary (in communist-ruled Hungary), after his involvement in the short-lived incipient democratic regime of 1918 (to be followed by exile, to continue till the end of his life once he fled in fear of the coming White Terror of 1919). This frequent (and politically charged) antipathy is all the more strange knowing how close the connections were between his and (the exceptionally respected poet) Ady’s political platform. Fairer assessments of him and Hungary’s liberal democratic tradition only emerged in the historiography of the 1970s, though Jászi’s reputation has not nearly fully recovered since, nor has his oeuvre become well known, thereby making it difficult to speak of an influence he exerts in contemporary Hungary.

In the due reassessment of the aforementioned tradition (which was not unrelated to its restoration), the eminent historian György Litván played a crucial role who, now in his seventies, published this lengthy biography of Jászi with the aim of presenting Jászi’s life “in its historical unfolding and exposing such connections, without evaluating his works or placing his political role historically.” As noted by János Pelle, this statement is crucial: it reveals the focus of this biography and sets its limits.

Prior to a discussion of the book’s merits and shortcomings, a few words are due on Jászi (1875-1957), who might be somewhat unfamiliar a name to an international audience. A significant publicist and editor (of the journal Huszadik Század), he was among the chief organizers and leaders of the generation to mature around the turn of the century, honourably called Hungary’s second reform generation, though its members’ fate was more commonly to fail (and often to end up in exile) than to succeed in their endeavours. Jászi’s role was a combination of a scholar and a politician, as his version of social science (the “third culture”) was political and “his analyses provided programme.” His prime interests lay in social questions and the nationality question of the Kingdom of Hungary, and the propagation of democracy (not just electoral, but also cultural and linguistic and incorporating the peasantry). An individualist and a humanist, his variant of liberal socialism was a moral utopia (a “rational socialist pantheism”), which he thought realizable through the power of ideas and by reconnecting various traditions (for instance “noble liberalism” with socially progressive groups).

In his youth, Jászi was influenced by the tradition of liberal nationalism, and later on planned to assume a role not unlike Jaurés’ in France. He took on a political role in 1905, to base his “democratic movement of intellectuals” on the working people and their organizations (without identifying the two with each other), and founded the Civic Radical Party in 1914, which later on he was to judge as his gravest mistake. One of the staunchest critics of Hungary and the Empire in the Dualist period, Jászi was among the most vocal defenders of the country’s nationalities (seeing in them a democratic force, in a doctrinaire fashion, rather typically of him) and propagators of a confederation. He was to assume the role of the Minister for Nationalities in 1918 when his hopes suffered a most severe blow: his optimistic belief in an equitable solution for all nationalities while maintaining the territorial integrity of Hungary could only lead to achieving none of the goals that were of importance to him.

Jászi’s position was peculiar (even unique) in multiple ways: a socialist but never a materialist and an opponent of Marxism, someone of Jewish origins in an antisemitically charged environment heavily critical of the role Jews played in society, etc. Moreover, Jászi was a man of principles and believer in natural rights, i.e. an idealist, which makes some of his self-declared enemies uncomfortable about him. To complicate the picture even more, a rationalist and positivist, Jászi was nevertheless prone to pathetic utterances and harsher rhetoric than what sounds acceptable today to his supporters.

Litván’s book is thoroughly researched and exhaustive on Jászi’s life and is at times beautifully written (with occasional verve, though not without pathetic statements), but it does not engage critically enough with Jászi’s oeuvre. It tackles fundamental questions about the possibility of radical criticism without falling prey to a belief in the necessity of violence (i.e. the chances of democratic pacifism in this world), and also the achievements and failures of an optimist and moral figure in an age of hatred and recurrent tragic outcomes (Jászi’s activity has to be judged as a failure by his own standards while his positive example is likely to inspire).

Still, this biography suffers from a too sympathetic view of its subject, and from too many descriptive parts that are not quite matched by its analytic strength. Though it is not the partisan work that would create and then defend “the real Jászi” we ought to embrace politically, it aims at presenting a morally nearly ideal human. Lastly, let me note some problems of balance in the work: as the more interesting parts are Jászi’s time prior to his exile (so until 1919), my sense is that a more elaborate presentation of it would have been a merrier solution, with more attention paid to the journal Huszadik Század and the Social Scientific Society as well as his environment, personal connections and concrete influences, especially concerning communism and communists as well as Jews and the “Jewish question.” Litván does not explore these two (probably) most controversial issues in depth, and thus his work fails to live up to the expectation of being the definite biography of Jászi. Convincing arguments are still needed on the (evolution of the) political position of this highly complicated intellectual.

The book appeared in English as well under the title A 20th Century Prophet: Oscar Jászi,published by CEU Press.