Modern magyar politikai eszmetörténet

TitleModern magyar politikai eszmetörténet
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialTakáts, József


PublisherBudapest: Osiris Kiadó
ISSNISBN 978 963 389 916 8
Review year


Full Text

This short volume by József Takáts is meant to serve as teaching material for courses on the history of political ideas, a field of inquiry that has been largely neglected in Hungary up until now. This point can be illustrated by the fact that while the national canons of literature or music have been negotiated for long and are widely known, this is far from being the case for Hungarian political thinkers. Explorations of political thinking in Hungary continue to lack an independent status from an institutional point of view, and hence its practitioners are dispersed across a number of established fields, a consequence of which is the absence of continuous reflection on local accomplishments. In such a situation, arguably the greatest difficulty of writing this course book consisted of the need to synthesize much diverse and admittedly complex material for the first time in a basic and accessible way. 
Though Takáts’ approach is admittedly eclectic, he focuses on the grand or characteristic achievements of political thinking, instead of issues such as the ideas of the state, everyday political discourse or popular political convictions. Seeing the task of writing a history of political ideas in “not only narrating the unifying history of great “ideas,” but rather to tell what it meant to be socialist [this is obviously only an example - FL] at certain points in time, in what kind of situation, to whom, together with and against who else” (p.9), his stress throughout the volume is on political languages, arguments, concepts.  
The author’s primary focus is on the triad of liberalism, socialism and conservatism, though the issue of nationalism is also important to him – he presents it as a "unity of emotions, beliefs and principles." Interestingly, he states that the language of nationalism was born (“to slightly simplify the matter”) through the encounter between the linguistic-cultural concept of the nation and the vocabulary of republicanism (p.20), though the language of “Christian religiosity” is at times also evidently present in forms of Hungarian nationalism (p.65). Later, he discusses republican-organicist as well as national Darwinist and historicist versions, though also noting the inconsistencies and confusions that are not alien to this type of political language, even in several of the most important and sophisticated works. 
His conviction that discontinuities are predominant enables him to neglect pre-modern (read early modern in English) Hungarian texts and begin his narrative with the 19th century. He conceives of two major changes in political vocabulary in the 19th century, those in the 1830s-40s and in the 1870s-80s. Prior to 1830, he identifies four political languages (republicanism; the one focused on the improvement of morals and behavior; the one based on the references to the ancient constitution; of enlightened governing), which could be used self-reflexively or unconsciously, in pure or mixed forms, depending on occasion, habitus, aims and abilities. In Takáts’ assessment, the traces of these political languages disappear after 1880, and one would try to look for them in vain (p.20). 
In his chapter on the topic of liberalism in the Hungarian Age of Reform, Takáts, after some general remarks on typology, presents it as belonging to the classical, “English” type (opposing royal absolutism, aiming to minimize the state, trusting elected, laic self-government), though elements resembling continental liberalism were also present in Hungary, notably among the centralists (pp.26-7). The mainstream Hungarian liberalism of the age was pro-modernization while having multiple reservations concerning modernity and without being etatist. Its concept of liberty was not focused on individual rights, but was based on republicanism and legal equality between people as well as nations. absent from the horizons of liberals of this time were questions of the connections between private property and freedom as well as economic growth, which begins to be more widely discussed only after the Ausgleich, as Takáts notes. 
In his next chapter, Takáts discusses the conservative option as a reaction to the liberal challenge. He presents the stress on continuities and non-doctrinaire politics based on habits, traditions, interests and the accusation that consistent liberalism is essentially socialist as its defining characteristics. Conservatives aimed to strike a balance between efficiency and devotion to old institutions through the pursuit of moderate politics. Among the conservatives, Takáts sees the role of Zsigmond Kemény as crucial, especially since his recommendations were accepted by the majority of the political elite after 1867 in his view – his stress on the primacy of national interests, the necessity of belonging to Austria and his rejection of democratic emancipation in particular (p.59). In this epoch the divide between liberals and conservatives did not become the primary political divide, since such ideological differences proved less crucial compared to stances towards the Ausgleich itself. 
The vocabulary and themes of politics changed significantly in the 1870s-80s, including both the traditions of liberal (from romantic to positivist and progressivist) and conservative (see shortly below) ideologies. Takáts illustrates this watershed by the changing meaning of the term state and society. The state was newly seen as an institution that needed to act, pursue grand goals, spread culture and promote economic development. It was also perceived as representing the common interests, progress and national goals – this largely explains how liberals (rather paradoxically) became etatist around this time. The meaning of the term social and polgárosodás also changed dramatically at this time when national Darwinism began to spread and political science first emerged. In Asbóth’s work, conservatism gets reinvented in crucial ways, turning to the national and social questions. It gets presented as modern, though Asbóth remained sharply opposed to bureaucracy, unproductive capital and demagogy. Importantly, the most significant political thinkers of this period were no longer politicians of the first order, unlike what was typical for the previous epoch (p.78). 
By the turn of the century, anti-liberal and anti-capitalist currents became dominant in Hungary. These put the social question in the center of their attention and aimed at cultural discontinuities. Liberalism was turning conservative and lost its potential to mobilize. Takáts maintains, discussing Ervin Szabó and Oszkár Jászi in particular, that contemporary socialist thought was never better represented in Hungary than at this point (p.90). Around the same time, Ottokár Prohászka was crucial among those who developed a Christian way of accepting the modern world and, by using references to solidarity and the obligation of social reform also beyond forms of charity, to an extent even the content of socialism, while rejecting its worldview. 

Alongside or perhaps as a consequence of the ethnicization, biologization and radicalization of political terms, the “Jewish question” became much more important in the inter-war period. While there was a pro-assimilationary consensus prior to the First World War, making racism less of a central component of Hungarian nationalism, this changed after (if not already during) the war years. At the same time, this epoch made the left-right divide the primary one for the first time in Hungarian history, though the right was undoubtedly comprised of rather heterogeneous elements. A collectivist spirit prevailed, when the values of free markets and parliaments were seriously questioned and often denied. A wide variety of ideas merit separate treatment in Takáts’ chapter on the Horthy era: the radical right, Christian socialism, neo-conservatism, the ideological coalition of the népiek (where László Németh’s special case occupies much space), the liberals, the socialists and the communists, alongside Dezső Szabó (whose impact can hardly be overestimated, a question one needs to consider irrespective of the perceived value of his works) – the only notably absent group are that of the émigrés.  
Unfortunately, the post-1945 period is treated only in a succinct way and the story is brought up only to 1948-49 when "the possibility of open political discussion disappeared" – later years get a mere four out of 148 pages. Takáts discusses some understandings of the changes of 1945, points to how the question of democracy and its various, polarized interpretations moved to central stage and how the language of Marxism became dominant, almost completely replacing both liberalism and conservatism. These signaled a nearly total shift on the level of political discourse. István Bibó’s attempt to merge liberalism and socialism in a new form of democracy is discussed at some length, but all of his other treatments are very brief. 
In sum, this book is an excellent short overview full of insights and a complex and nuanced version of the basic canon of modern Hungarian political thinkers – a canon that still needs to be negotiated before it can be established with greater firmness. At the same time, three important shortcomings ought to be mentioned. Firstly, the story could have been brought more up-to-date, since political languages continued their existence under communism. Takáts’ argument about the lack of open discussions, while true, is not convincing in this sense. It would have been interesting to explore how political languages got encoded in the various versions of what was supposedly the same ideology. Secondly, an international perspective is lacking. In the case of political thinking, the influence of the Western canon and the history of reception are so central that the neglect of these aspects is a serious shortcoming of this work. Thirdly, while theories of various political ideologies and nationalism are presented, scholars of the history of political ideas could have been included as well. These three reservations notwithstanding, this is an important and more than timely work that is largely adequate to its purpose and will certainly improve the chances of the history of political ideas in Hungary in terms of teaching, future canonization and perhaps even institutionalization.