A bűnbaktól a realista lényeglátóig: A magyar politikai és tudományos diskurzusok Kossuth-képei, 1849-2002

TitleA bűnbaktól a realista lényeglátóig: A magyar politikai és tudományos diskurzusok Kossuth-képei, 1849-2002
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialDénes, Iván Zoltán

book. Title translated: From Scapegoat to Realist Seer of the Essence: The Images of Kossuth in Hungarian Political and Scholarly Discourses, 1849-2002.

PublisherBudapest: Argumentum Kiadó, Bibó István Szellemi Műhely
ISSNISBN: 963 446 260
Issuex. Series: Eszmetörténeti Könyvtár 1.
Review year


Full Text

This volume is a study in intellectual history that deals with Hungarian historiography and, more particularly, the images of Kossuth. It includes altogether six pieces: five case studies on the contested images of the controversial historical role of Lajos Kossuth, written by young scholars (born between 1974 and 1978) out of whose doctoral seminars this book emerged, and a summary (of more authors than the number treated in more depth in the other five chapters) written by the volume’s senior editor, Iván Zoltán Dénes, who explores backgrounds and contexts as well – this crucial piece is, somewhat unusually, included at the end and not at the beginning of this volume.
A bűnbaktól a realista lényeglátóig focuses on exploring and analyzing the main types of the various Hungarian interpretations of Kossuth, including a wide spectrum from the political-ideological point of view, from conservatives to socialists and communists (p.7). These images of Kossuth have influenced and even permeated each other while the assessments of Kossuth have been radically divergent, from cultic admiration to forms of scapegoating, from attempts at deheroization to various symbolic appropriations and idealizations – interestingly, for example by the Hungarian Stalinists as well as the 1956er revolutionary youth (pp.160-3). On the most basic level, the relation to national independence, liberalism and democracy have significantly influenced these perceptions, and in this case scholarly neutrality and political motivations often prove difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle. On the other hand, parts of the book tends to present the story of this historiography as a change from schematic to scholarly studies, from subjective to objective ways of understanding, from imbalanced, pathetic declarations to more contextualist and complex assessments (p.123, p.175).
In other words, there is a certain non-contemporaneity in the view of the authors: the current state of knowledge on Kossuth’s time has made our views more nuanced and basically disproved the abovementioned schematic understandings, but this development has not sufficiently impacted the actual presentations of Kossuth – in the eyes of Dénes, it is still necessary to send a call to leave them behind (p.177).  In Dénes’ view, nuancing means moving towards an understanding of Kossuth as an intellectual (p.176) as well as the explorations of his liberal nationalism (since in Hungary the extension of rights went together with assimilatory aims, but the reverse is also true: the lack of a call for assimilation was accompanied by way less interest in extending rights; see János Varga’s studies in particular), and his reformism (Kossuth was no revolutionary) that was open to the increasing demands of democratization.
Let me provide short summary of several individual studies. Szilárd Tattay writes on the perceptions of Kossuth in conservative, anti-revolutionary writings, those of Kemény, Asbóth and Szekfű, whose images of Kossuth can be seen as forming a line descent, from “the emotional radical to the sérelmi (“political policy based on venting grievances” in rough translation) radical” (p.38). In their view, Kossuth was largely responsible for the revolution and the catastrophe of Világos, since he forgot to combine the principle of progress with that of conservation, was a doctrinaire (liberal) who lacked the sense of realism. On these accounts, he is contrasted with Széchenyi, and this contrast tends to be argued in a gendered way, i.e. Kossuth is presented as feminine. He himself was led by passions and aimed to impact emotions and caused fanaticism, abusing people’s instincts and overwhelming their reason, playing out the principle of freedom against authority. Ultimately, they saw (and judged) Kossuth as a radical – also on the nationality question, on which point all three criticized him, though with different accents, and in relation to the country system, which he judged “from the point of view of opposition” (Szekfű).
The second study, by Bence Stágel, is on the important corrective Mályusz offers to this picture, in the first place arguing against his senior contemporary Szekfű. Stágel explores the changes in Mályusz’s image (on the basis of his two pieces published in 1923 and 1928, in the latter one Mályusz was stressing Kossuth’s conservative side more) and the importance Mályusz attached to the skills and character of Kossuth (p.42). Mályusz was particularly in disagreement with Szekfű on the Hungarian Age of Reform as an epoch of decline. He saw Kossuth as an able politician with a sense of realism, who, through his consistent advocacy and rhetorical skills, became the spokesperson for the poorer strata who were losing out and managed to raise their hopes. Kossuth, in this view, combined the promise of political participation with economic betterment. His plans were right and his method of propagating them necessary and useful (p.50, p.57). Moreover, Kossuth combined his wish of transformation based on Western models with attention to Hungarian traditions (p.61). In Mályusz's construction of history, Kossuth’s comprehensive reform was the continuation of Széchenyi’s moderate reform (pp.47-9). Mályusz also presented the dynamism of Kossuth’ thinking as moving towards democratic ideas, but basically remaining a "noble democrat" (an “absurd combination” that was, in his view, only made possible by the absence of earlier, timely reforms, in the 18th century, which happened to be one of the Golden Ages in the eyes Szekfű). He also aimed to embed his personality and deeds in his age (using the rational method of explanation based on cause and effect relations, claiming that Szekfű failed to do so). All in all, in Mályusz’s version, Kossuth responded to the “challenge of the age,” he proved to be the realist and successful propagator of a concrete stratum of society, but beyond this, he contributed to general development as well – implicitly, Mályusz claims that without his contribution, societal tensions could have broken out in more anarchistic ways, so Stágel (p.64). What I find lacking in Stágel’s study is more attention devoted to other basic differences between Mályusz and Szekfű (their methods, aims and affiliations as historians, their versions of the national grand narratives, etc.). His comparison is not systematic. More concretely, in some sense the objects of their studies are different time periods, so while they are seemingly discussing the same issues, they might be talking past each other.
Péter Cserne explores an important part of the symbolic politics of Ervin Szabó and József Révai: their (largely) normative views on Kossuth. The former constructed a negative view of the "self-interested propagator of noble interests," responsible not for a bourgeois but merely an agrarian revolution, who retracted from implementing progressive reforms. Importantly, Szabó countered the myth of noble generosity and sacrifice (p.77) and claims that the bourgeois revolution is still ahead (a social democratic, as opposed to communist, view of Hungarian history). He also had a negative view of the Hungarian side of the conflict of 1848-9 (notably, though Szabó argued from a very different position, he took and adopted some of his language from Kemény). His is an economy-centered view and the question of the social progressivity is used as the only means of assessment (pp.93-5). These views Révai initially (at least partially) shared, but later rejected completely, rehabilitating and appropriating Kossuth (p.65-9). Révai attacked the points of Szabó as building blocks of a myth, claiming that even though it was no popular revolution, 1848-9 was a national independence struggle (p.84). Thus, it could be part of the (or rather his) progressive canon. In Révai’s view, the revolution was inconsistent, combining revolutionary and constitutional types of legitimacy, but could maintain national unity through radicalizing (towards the Left) in 1848-9 (pp.85-7). Kossuth was also a transitory type of person, “more than a liberal noble, less than a popular, democratic revolutionary.” Cserne rightly emphasized that Révai was pointing to the national factor in line with the ideological requirements of the era of building Popular Fronts in the 1930s, and used the myth of the national independence fight(s) later as well, which became an important part of the symbolic politics accompanying the emergence of the communist dictatorship in Hungary (when Kossuth was most clearly turned into a precursor to the communists).
Balázs Brunczel explores scholarly works of the past half a century, those of Barta, Hajnal, Kosáry, Szabad, Urbán and Varga in particular, with the aims of assessing, firstly, whether they have aimed to improve or worsen the image of Kossuth and, secondly, how significant was the role they assigned to him by them (p.122). For instance, Kosáry aims to deheroize Kossuth’s image, crucially by exploring his circumstances and development, while stressing his exceptional personality (particularly emphasizing his skills of oration and writing) and important historical role (pp.125-7). He also relativizes (and even to some extent reverses) the contrast between Széchenyi and Kossuth (originally conceived as the contrast and conflict between reason and emotion), but also stresses the conflicts between Kossuth and his contemporaries. Hajnal aims to decrease the importance attached to Kossuth and do away with the perceived contrasts between him and others, particularly Batthyány. Urbán’s study is highly similar in this latter respect. Barta’s contribution was to treat the thinking and deeds of Kossuth through the study of the comprehensive currents of the epoch, explicitly based on a Marxist understanding, which was (fortunately) only moderately applied in practice (p.145). Varga’s sophisticated contribution, embedding Kossuth in a wider, more differentiated ideological, historical and political context, would deserve closer scrutiny (p.159). Let me only mention here his introduction of the crucial concept of “rights-extending assimilation” (p.150). Szabad, in his many works, has basically restates the case of Kossuth’s unique importance and positive historical role (motivated by the thoughts of and belief in independence and democratization).
Prior to some words of general assessment, let me offer a number of critical comments. Firstly, I find it somewhat misleading that although in the subtitle political is mentioned ahead of scholarly (tudományos), the evidence used is only textual and mostly scholarly. There is hardly anything about politicians qua politicians employing images of Kossuth (Révai comes closest, but then again, he was also responsible for cultural policy and was anyhow atypical in his attitude towards national history in the Stalinist leadership he was part of) or the popular cult of him. The inclusion of the debate triggered by Erik Molnár (Béla Dinnyei’s piece) has also been a debatable choice. Even though this has been an important development in Hungarian historiography of the times and the confrontation and “agreement to disagree” between nationalists and "internationalists" is no doubt worth exploring, it is evident that Molnár did not contribute to the formation of the image of Kossuth as such, and only a hypothetical and derived image of Kossuth can only be guessed in his case (p.110, p.114). Even though it would certainly be of interest to compare the pro-Habsburg (typically “conservative”) discourse of the 19th century with the pro-communist, pro-Kádárist (typically “progressive”) discourse in terms of their (on certain points strikingly similar) views on “national history,” and this volume does take some steps in this direction. In other words, the material explored in A bűnbaktól a realista lényeglátóig is limited, both in its amount and variety, and the selection (though it is fortunately inclusive and impartial from another, more current Hungarian political point of view, see the treatment of both Szekfű and Révai, which is still rare in the same volume) is somewhat debatable.
On a less technical and more scholarly level, it might be questioned why the basic aim has been to reconstruct views and stances, and the focus has not been more directly on the contexts (both the contemporary primary contexts, and in the worldview and oeuvre of their authors; for instance a parallel history of the images of Széchenyi and Kossuth could have yielded more interesting results), negotiations and contests (for instance, early accusers of Kossuth, notably Kemény, could have been compared with Kossuth’s supporters) and the dynamism of the continuous formation of this image itself (to see more clearly how its transformations interact with major political changes). In my perception, the question of “who thought what about Kossuth?” makes the answers in this volume at times fall short of properly historicized ones.
Even so, this volume discusses many of the most significant contributors to the formation of the image of Kossuth in the past one and a half century in a single volume, relates these authors to each other (though comments in this vein are often rather sparse) and gives a very good indicator of the basic evolution of this intriguing story that is also certainly relevant to the understanding of modern Hungarian political culture. In case we aimed to historicize this volume, we could say it is a project of reflecting on and critically assessing “traditional” historiography, relating to it but continuing it only in critical dialogue with its style and tenets.
An article by Iván Zoltán Dénes, copyrighted and titled "Kossuth-images and their contexts, 1849-2005" can be downloaded from www.bibomuhely.hu. It does not have a URL to access it directly, so please go to Tanulmányok (top left, 6th line from the top) and there you can find it in the section 2005, in case interested.