In the late 1920s the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth took a series of trips through the Soviet Union. The timing was duly symbolic. Ten years earlier the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Tsarist regime and won the subsequent civil war. Roth began his journey in good spirits. He was a conservative socialist nostalgic for the Danube monarchy, yet who despised the Tsars and found nationalism repulsive. His distaste for the ancien régime instilled an instinctive love for the Soviet experiment: anti-Semitism was illegal, women were granted reproductive rights and the landowning class was liquidated. To Roth’s delight, former members of the aristocracy now had to survive by “playing balalaika in Berlin nightclubs”. Simultaneously, the writer admitted to having a cool love for the country of the future. The Soviet regime ruled over a poor and backward society, grasping at American imports from tractors to luxury goods. One had to “respectfully observe” what the Russians were doing, yet theirs was no utopia: here was a forced attempt to perfect modernity rather than transcend it.
The Transylvanian writer and critic Gáspár Miklós Tamás, whose death was announced on 15 January, was a Rothian Marxist if ever there was one. Tamás’s socialism was never born of oedipal impulse. With two parents who were part of the Hungarian intelligentsia, he received a classical left education in the post-war period. He was born in 1948 in the principal city of Transylvania, which had been transferred from Hungary to Romania in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon, then given back to Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian regent, by Hitler in 1940. Tamás’s parents were communists who survived the Nazi occupation – his mother only escaped deportation to Auschwitz because she was already in jail as a renegade Bolshevik. Disillusioned by the party’s Stalinisation in the post-bellum, they nonetheless remained firmly on the left – a background which prepared their son for his dissident socialism in the 1970s.
As Tamás remembered: “When my father was thoroughly disenchanted with the system, I asked him why he still called himself a Communist. He showed me a little plastic – well, I suppose, bakelite – cube, with six little photos glued on its sides: the portraits of some of the best friends of his youth, tortured to death by the royal Hungarian and Romanian secret services, or by the Gestapo in that awful year, 1944. ‘Because I cannot explain it to them’, he said.”
Genetically internationalist in politics and culture, Tamás became fluent in French, English and German. He hailed from the same Budapest where the Marxist philosophers Georg Lukács and István Mészáros had written, and became one of Hungary’s most erudite and prominent anti-Soviet dissidents in the 1980s. At the end of the decade he researched at Oxford and took up visiting positions at Yale and Columbia. By then his trademark writing style had become clear: no grand system-builder like Lukács and other members of the Budapest school, Tamás remained closer to Roth’s belletrism and built his reputation on the philosophically and situationally informed essay, elegantly moving his lens from microscopic to macroscopic and back. Exegeses of novels by Thomas Mann or tracts by Johann Gottlieb Fichte could easily mingle with responsible pop criticism.
The opposition years proved politically confusing. In the 2010s Tamás became known as an existential enemy of Viktor Orbán’s regime, whose post-liberal experiment forebode the global xenophobia of the 2020s. In the Soviet regime’s final decade, however, both Tamás and Orbán had found themselves on the same side of the barricades against party apparatchiks, with Tamás rumoured to have gone so as far to protest the future prime minister’s arrest. Tamás, a liberal during and after the springtime of peoples of 1989, served in the Hungarian Parliament as a representative of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), from 1989 to 1994. His optimism about the 1990s quickly waned, and fierce opposition to the state socialist system gave way to a compound of nostalgia and regret. The arrival of American shock-therapy doctors in the former Soviet zones not only meant the detonation of the industrial base of the country, it also trashed all that had been worthy of preservation in the Soviet heritage. Balzac and Dostoevsky, not Michael Jackson and MTV, were his generation’s required cultural diet. No nouvelle vague or Rolling Stones, only the hallowed classics of the 19th-century canon, which would elevate the proletariat to the same height as its class enemy.
As he remembered: “National cultures that like harking back to a fictitious Middle Age had been endowed with a script – then a press, publishing, higher education, theatre – by literate commissars with romantic leanings, who believed in pristine folk cultures in the Urals, far away from decadent St Petersburg. Faust was translated into dozens of languages by poets who were themselves just one generation from general illiteracy. These nations are now watching pop videos on YouTube.”
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In the latter sense both Tamás and Roth were products of a late Habsburg culture that combined a productive provincialism with a forcedly cosmopolitan outlook. As Eastern European Jews they appreciated the benefits that bourgeois modernity had brought to the hinterland. At the same time they also recognised a constitutive ambiguity in this modernity. Traversing post-revolutionary Russia, Roth remained wistful for the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had crumbled in the cataclysm of the First World War. This fairyland had sheltered its minorities in a safer way than the exclusive nationalisms that arose in its wake.
Similarly, Tamás had celebrated the modernising ambitions of the socialist project throughout the 20th century. To him, however, the Soviet Union was mainly an attempt to restore the multinational empire of the double monarchy and spread its urban prosperity. As he noted, Lenin had borrowed his theory of national self-determination from a group of Austrian Marxists, who copied the Danuban monarchy’s approach to ethnic difference and reconciling the national and social question.
By fostering regional belonging Soviet elites also dug their own grave. Rather than a democratic upheaval, Tamás increasingly became convinced that 1989 had been a nationalist revolution first and foremost. It thereby functioned as the completion of an older process that few dissidents had adequately recognised, including its market-friendly results. “What was important in hindsight,” Tamás recalled in a 2009 interview, “was that in the first two years I spent in the highest chapter of my country as a lawmaker, two million jobs were lost – and I don’t think I noticed. That is one of the greatest shames of my life.”
As penance Tamás reconverted to a more classical Marxism in the 1990s, now enriched by historical hindsight. “When looking at the liberal turn of such formerly socialist luminaries as Jürgen Habermas,” he recalled, “becoming little more than pillars of the establishment, I decided to throw out my whole so-called oeuvre, break with my entire life so far, and go to school again.” Marxism’s release from state doctrine had proved ambiguous, however. On the one hand, it made possible discussion free from the dogmatics still prevalent in the 1980s. On the other, the fall of the Berlin Wall had an undeniably neutering effect. Marxism had secured a safe niche for itself in the academy, yet it did so at the cost of blunting its critical edge, safely slotting the proletariat into a pluralist panoply of oppressed identities. A new reading of Marx made headway here. The so-called “Neue Marx Lektüre” argued that rather than abolishing capitalism, the Soviet Union had been busy catching up with the productivity levels of the West throughout the 20th century. Over the span of one human lifespan, capitalism had not gone away, but a medieval peasantry had in fact been dragged into modernity.
This New Reading of Marx could often veer into anti-politics in its rejection of a so-called “worldview” Marxism. To Tamás, however, recovering Marx should never be a kabbalistic exercise, and held strategic lessons for the 21st century. In a 2006 article named “Telling the Truth About Class” Tamás distinguished two traditions within 20th-century socialism – the first demonic, the second angelic. The first stuck to a strictly scientific emphasis on class and insisted on the need for revolution not on moral but on philosophical grounds. The proletariat was in no way ethically superior to its opponents or deserved entry tickets to heaven. The second exhibited a strong populist temptation, trading the working class for the people, and celebrated its cultural cachet.
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It was the second tradition that had truly dominated throughout the 20th century, Tamás claimed. In Tamás’s view the real historic task of 20th-century socialism had not been to prepare a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The ancien régime had persisted and the bourgeoisie had struck a deal with the old order. Instead of steering society they retreated into the secluded spheres of art or profit-making. Both in politics and culture, their revolution was left incomplete. Socialism had to do the bourgeoisie’s work for it. “While in the adult education courses run by the Social Democrats in Vienna, Pest, Cracow, Czernowitz, people talked about the same topics as people in the Fabian Society or at the Cooper Union,” Tamás noted, “the poor, illiterate and pious peasants believed in witches, charms and – until after 1945 – could not read a clockface.” Rather than transcending capital, Eastern European socialists had perfected industrial capitalism and its egalitarian mores.
Tamás’s evaluation of this tradition was always subtle, however. On the one hand, socialists had opened a vast swathe of humanity to the benefits of modernity, from legal equality to the prosperity generated by capitalist markets. Despite lamentations about mass culture, they had bred a proletariat which could read Proust and Joyce, and working-class bands such as the Beatles showed the real hegemony it had won in lieu of social revolution. The worker had become a proper legatee to the humanist heritage which only upper classes had access to.
Yet, in the 21st century, this tradition had also exhausted itself, exemplified by the disarray of all socialist and communist parties East and West. A society in which everyone from peasant to priest had become market-dependent no longer required a bourgeois revolution. There were no landed classes left to assault. The Church had become a mere supplier of “meaning”. The army no longer conscripted en masse.
Nowhere was this sense of disorientation felt more acutely than in Eastern Europe, abruptly dragged out of the Middle Ages after the Stalinist coups of the 1940s. As Tamás reported after a trip to the US, he “was taken aback when at a function in Washington DC, Bill Clinton swept in and everybody stood up. This could not happen in Eastern or in Central Europe – here there are no remnants of erstwhile royalty: politicians and bosses are garbage.”
This generated a paradox. A world in which capitalism had triumphed no longer generated enough oppositional energy for its transcendence. The bourgeois project had been completed – but socialism no longer seemed a necessity or an option either. This situation left behind a capitalism simultaneously powerful and exhausted, with a ruling class curious in its indecision; as Branko Milanović, another Central European post-communist intellectual, put it, capitalism now stood “alone”. In the absence of its original foe even 20th-century fascism was downgraded to a “post-fascist” imitation, a neologism which Tamás helped to generalise in the 2010s and which indicated the confusion the end of socialism had wreaked even on its enemies. Fascism, after all, had already served its historic purpose: render a workers’ revolution impossible in the developed West.
Sadly, for Tamás this now meant that the modernity won during the Soviet years was itself under threat. “The system of the landed estates has come back to Hungary,” he said in 2019, “but this time there are no serfs, only machines.” Both reform and revolution might have become equally implausible in the new century. But modernity and culture still required saving from capitalism – whether it was by angels or demons.
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