Politikai-filozófiai tanulmányok 1990-2006

TitlePolitikai-filozófiai tanulmányok 1990-2006
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialBence, György

Title translated:
Political-Philosophical Studies 1990-2006

PublisherBudapest: L'Harmattan
Review year


Full Text

György Bence was one of the leading political philosophers and historian of ideas in Hungary until his tragic and premature death last year, in 2006. In his early mature years and his first works he was creatively using and dealing with the Marxist tradition, and while he was banned from positions and publishing opportunities until 1989 (let me mention that as a consequence of this his dissertation defense took place seventeen years after his submission: an anachronistic defense included in the volume under review) and is usually considered one of the major dissidents/oppositionals in Hungary, his relationship with several other influential dissidents/oppositionals (who were to play key roles as intellectual supporters of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats) was at times far from harmonious. (Bence claims that though he shares the conventional views of the most general kind held by progressive intellectuals, he cannot accept the way progressive intellectuals represent these. See p.300) In the later parts of his life Bence was profoundly interested in the political philosophy of the 20th century as well as the development of Hungarian political thinking throughout the centuries and in the present times. 

Bence saw as one of his crucial tasks the attempt to abolish the artificial walls between political theory and practice that was, among other things, manifesting in his writings “on the most general questions in the daily press.” On another level, he can be seen as someone striving against the self-enclosed provincialism of the (political) culture of Hungary through applying important theories to local contexts. Importantly, Bence liked to offer his often cautious and ironic views and take well-argued stances in some of the major debates of the post-communist times, while making sure to avoid accepting wholesale ideological answers and stay uninvolved in factional struggles (in itself no small achievement in the heavily contested and divided political culture of Hungary). His critical thinking, clear and balanced expositions constituted valuable contributions in several controversial cases. His learnedness and erudition made him perfectly suited for such a role of someone who intervenes, mediates and adds new perspectives to debates, though his profound knowledge and rare talents did not manifest in continuous publishing activities and in the development of an oeuvre.  

This is a posthumous collection of his writings, which was originally conceived by him back in 2004. It includes twenty-four, mostly rather short argumentative pieces. Many originally appeared in the first few years after 1989, while six others are published here for the first time. The book is divided into seven sections, on political philosophy, totalitarianism, the change of regime, transitional justice (what Bence calls politikai igazságtétel, approximately “the act of political justice-making”), current topics and debates, on the history of Hungarian political ideas and, last but not least, several of Bence’s recollection and remembrance pieces are also included here.  

It would be impossible to summarize the complex, often convincing and always thought-provoking argumentation of each of these pieces in a review of this length. Instead I selected some of the most important pieces and issues Bence discusses for somewhat lengthier overview and will introduce other articles with few words only. 

Bence’s political philosophical self-positioning was cautious, but largely in line with the critique of the overly abstract political philosophies of the first generation of academic political philosophers, which among other things led to the multiple rediscoveries of thinkers of the earlier 20th century – Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt assuming highly prominent places among them. These often controversial but undeniably thought-provoking theorists were thinking about politics differently from the politics of modus vivendi (of “what should be the rational consensus on the most significant principles?”) so characteristic of Rawls and Habermas, as well as of the many later thinkers walking in their footsteps. This latter, normative tradition had “neutrality, freedom, societal justice” written on its banners, and being only exclusively concerned with issues of reason, it often failed to incorporate the realities of politics where, next to reason, interests and passions also have to be taken into account. This refocusing of the problem of politics, partly through the inclusion of identity politics and the acceptance of the unavoidability of cultural contestation and various fights for recognition of differences (that is to say the massive contemporary politicization of culture in general), has usually been accompanied by new (frequently though not always anti-foundational) epistemological stances and linguistic theories of philosophers. 

In the section on the history of Hungarian political ideas, Bence informs the reader on the Hungarian seminars and plans of conducting up-to-date intellectual history research to analyze the Hungarian societal and political language across the centuries. Hungarian might not have produced many great works of political reflection and partly because of this intellectual history suffers from a lack of institutionalization and widespread neglect as an area of research, often justified with the “doctrine of the discipline of history” that there was some sort of detour or general distortedness of Hungarian political development and culture (and therefore this subfield cannot be worthy of much attention). Bence points to the likely possibility that the Hungarian societal and political language has been more “contemporary” on the lower level through borrowing, and since recent, sophisticated and influential intellectual histories are non-teleological, contextualist and analyze the “area between ideologies and concepts,” they provide very promising tools for those researching Hungarian material.   

In another important study titled Előrelátás és meglepetés: Szovjetológia a szovjet rendszer alkonyán, though Bence mentions the complex general question of the extent to which social sciences can be expected to inform us about the future, he sees the failure of Sovietology in foreseeing and predicting the Soviet collapse to lay in causes beyond such general ones. Namely, in its secluded nature (removed from mainstream social science and classics of social theory such as Max Weber) and the ideological beliefs of many of its practitioners (rather widespread and influential in various studies of communism; in this case Bence means the left-liberal convictions of many Sovietologists of the 1970s and 1980s who trusted “etatism, planning and ethical instincts,” making them less perceptive of what was going on than various political leaders and journalists). Their seclusion and ideological beliefs meant that Sovietologists were not able to apply the knowledge they could be expected to possess, and consistently denied the very possibility of what happened later – as late as in 1987 generally and falsely agreeing on what Gorbachev cannot and would not do. Moreover, Bence claims that even though the totalitarian model has been often criticized and even harshly condemned by some, and came to be largely replaced by revisionist models starting in the 1960s, supposing some sort of pluralism (quasi-, bureaucratic or institutional) in the systems of the Soviet-type, these new models presented the differences between democracies and communist regimes as trivial. Simultaneously in Eastern Europe, the totalitarian mode of understanding was firmly entrenched in dissidents’ thinking, at least since 1968 and the suppression of the Prague Spring – for many of whom détente therefore meant a tragic sense of Western carelessness about and acceptance of their plight. Revisionists at this time liked to accuse the totalitarian school of their inability to follow “the actual developments” of the Soviet Union and other Soviet-type systems, which accusation came back to haunt them exactly at the time when new variants of the totalitarian model emerged and largely regained their dominance (p.98).  

In Az értelmiség útja a Tervhivatalig, Bence is rather critical of the famous work by Konrád and Szelényi (titled Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power) on intellectuals under the socialist system and their (future) emergence as the new (ruling) class, since the genre of the book is mixed, several of the presented facts and generalizations are inaccurate, there are no names or scholarly references, and its descriptions are mere illustrations of the authors’ model, which Bence sees as too narrow and judges Konrád’s and Szelényi’s reasoning based on the idea that ideology and reality are closely connected as fallacious. Still, their main theses seemed intuitively (at least partly) right to many: their pessimistic vision of the systemic nature of the totalitarian incorporation somehow had the effect of making people look for solution external to the “hopeless present realities.” This is somewhat ironic, since Konrád and Szelényi were writing an Intellectual Manifesto which was also a Requiem for the Intellectuals, the latter of which was not so well received by its (intellectual) readers – but because of the impossibility of debating this work at the time of its writing, this has to be more of an intuitive guess by Bence. Here we are thinking of a debate that ought to have taken place, since though the work’s weaknesses are evident in retrospect, it still compares favorably with works from its time, including Gouldner’s, so Bence.  

Moving on to the shorter presentations of some of the other pieces, Bence shows how in the presentations of Kant by both Rawls and Arendt elements of construction were much more significant than those of reconstruction. Their symbolic appropriations of Kant were highly idiosyncratic, therefore questionable as well as intriguing and creative (A politikai filozófia két gyökere Kantnál). In Bence’s view, Arendt’s no doubt one-sided understanding of Eichmann was similarly fruitful in opening new avenues of reflection (A közönséges tömeggyilkos. A filozófus mint riporter).  

Bence presents Burke alongside Lassalle since both of these (otherwise very different) thinkers reflected on questions of justice in ownership, showing how original injustices get overlaid with multiple relations as time passes. Bence also propagatesdthe establishment of Truth Commissions that would have provided an admittedly difficult but important and grand way of dealing with/ facing the communist past, and recurrently points to the need of more enquiries into the workings of the communist system before judgments can be passed (in the sectionPolitikai igazságtétel).There is another important contribution on humanities in Hungary and the possibilities and weaknesses of reform after 1989 in an environment where ambiguities, especially related to the previous regime, are pervasive and paradoxes not infrequently seen by those willing to confront them (see Átmenet és átmentés a human tudományban). Bence critiques Havel for his naïve pronouncements on the possibility of subordinating politics to conscience, claiming that the problem of “dirty hands” in politics is disturbing but/and cannot be abolished. He shows how even the behavior of dissidents was far from free of ambiguities: from a moral point of view it belonged to a zone in-between. The dilemmas of former times have to be remembered and faced, not denied in the interest of creating the image of the “heroic days of innocence” (Piszkos kezek: Rezsimváltás előtt és után).  

His argument with contemporary Hungarian liberalism, often with arguments from within the liberal tradition, can be seen in the following pieces: on the state and its regulations concerning religion, Bence takes the stance that religion cannot be a merely private matter, as opposed to what some liberal theories have claimed, supposing the possibility of clear separation. The interpretation of the principle of freedom of conscience is quite different across liberal democracies. (For instance, in the United States religion is considered to contribute to the common good as well as to the pluralism of American society.) Bence takes the stance that while discriminatory support for certain churches over others is unacceptable, some forms of state support for churches can be accepted – true neutrality cannot mean animosity to religion, which Bence feels the need to stress since it is also often forgotten. The level of this support has to reflect the circumstances and cannot be determined in abstraction (A vallási semlegesség határairól). Arguing against similar prejudices, Bence claims that the division between liberals and nationalists, so strong in Hungary, is not predetermined, nor is nationalism necessarily egoist or formally illogical. Though admittedly much of scholarship on nationalism is negatively disposed towards its object of study, this does not mean that there were no serious and thorough attempts to justify nationalism, some of which he presents to the reader (A nacionalista jó okai).  

Lastly, there is a lengthier study on the possibility and ways to reconcile social democracy with green demands, in which Bence shows that after early opposition, not only have third wave social democrats moved in the direction of reconciliation, certain slogans are indeed already shared (“sustainable development,” “the rights of future generations”). On the other hand, green movements and parties have not made much headway in countries formerly belonging to the Eastern bloc, which he takes as a way to show that 1968 meant a real divergence in the political cultures of the two halves of the continent – more so than 1945 or 1948, in his view (p.242) (Vörös és zöld: avagy összeegyeztethető-e a szociáldemokrácia a zöld követelésekkel?). 

All in all, this is a collection of diverse writings which all reflect the erudition of György Bence, show the multiplicity of his concerns and the relevance of the topics he chose to study. He is often able to fruitfully reveal what he meant by the linking theoretical reflection and political practice. His logical and clear reasoning makes this a relatively easy volume to read that at the same time not only conveys much information but presents many arguments worth discussing about the study of politics in general as well as Hungarian politics in the present and in a historical perspective.