G.M. Tamás: “We Must Return to Politics”

G.M. Tamás, a leading Eastern European thinker, recently paid a visit to Bratislava during a demonstration against the march of Slovakian neo-fascists. On the eve before the protest, Lukáš Likavčan held a conversation with him about the Momentum Movement in Hungary, populism, solidarity, the betrayal of the left, and the possibility of left-wing movements in contemporary Eastern Europe being unique, historical developments.

Lukáš Likavčan: In Hungary, a young anti-Orbán grassroots movement, the Momentum Movement, recently claimed a major success in its campaign for a referendum on the country’s Olympic bid. Do you believe that this movement can be a game-changer for Hungarian politics?

G.M. Tamás: They [the Momentum Movement] are not likely to win the next elections, but they represent a new brand of politics. These people are taking from the right most of its prejudices without accepting all its policies, and taking some of the policies of the moderate left and of the liberals, without confessing that they are either on the moderate left or that they are liberals. There are similar movements emerging all across Europe, such as the USR movement in Romania – already quite successful and in Parliament – and the movement of Emmanuel Macron, who seems to be the most successful candidate for the French presidency.

Take this for an example. The leader of the Momentum Movement says in all his interviews that in the last elections he voted for Mr Orbán’s party, to show that he was not some sort of “foreign agent,” Judeo-liberal or Commie. Many people in Hungarian civil society (e.g. the teacher’s movement) did the same. It gives them a clean bill of health in the eyes of the majority, as it were. They would also curse all the parties that since 1989 have played a role on either the left or in the liberal middle, therefore conforming to the common prejudice that there are indeed some anti-nationalist forces operating, destroying the backbone of our nation, and selling us off to Europe, liberals, feminists, egalitarians, vegetarians or some other diabolical things of this kind.

People from the Momentum Movement conform to this common prejudice and at the same time, they go against the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-egalitarian measures of the government. But they do it very carefully. They would say: “We don’t have any ideology. We’re neither right nor left, but we’ll go to every single town and village in Hungary and ask people’s opinions. Problems shouldn’t be approached by any theory,” and so forth. This is their Neanderthal theory of politics – namely that there are no political concepts at all, only experiences and interests and prejudices. These movements have also a very strong generational and class bias. Everywhere the young are told to be young, untainted by the curses of the past, either by communism or by the democratic system of the last quarter of a century. They speak of the past with a tone of voice that suggests some mysterium tremendum of evil. The past is a crime, but our national traditions must be venerated. Also, they are cool.

So you would say there is not even a tiny piece of populist strategy involved in such a political movement?

If you consider populists as being those who are courting public opinion, then yes, they’re very good at it. But I don’t want to paste any label on them. What is tragic is that these people think that political theories are invalid by the virtue of being theories, and that all what we need is an efficient public administration and a healthy national consciousness. It’s very interesting that the campaign against the Olympic games didn’t address problems linked to professional sports (corruption, chauvinism, the spreading of the worst spirit of competition: a metaphor for both capitalism and war) or to mass tourism. It was all about the Olympics being too expensive. No other aspect of this was touched upon, because that would have been controversial – and they don’t court controversy, they want just consensus and, hence, popularity and, hence, electoral success. Momentum appeared in the name of the smallest common denominator, devoid of any ideas.

In your recent article, you have argued against the widespread discourse that claims the politics of Orbán, Fico or Szydło/Kaczyński are populistic. Could you clarify your position on this?

It’s very paradoxical that now it is egalitarians who are accused of being the elite in virtue of the simple fact that they happen to be a minority at the moment.

Historically, there is no kind of populism that wasn’t based on the popular majority feeling resentment towards the elite, whether imagined or real. Hungary and Poland are authoritarian regimes, and as elitist as any, they want the support of the voters – which is nothing new – just as does anyone who wants to win an election. But to simply want to win an election is not populism. Even Charles de Gaulle wanted to win the elections. So? If someone considers populism a system excluding popular participation in favour of the most extreme versions of inequality, that’s silly. As an example, consider that Mr. Trump has been accused of being a populist. Well, he’s a demagogue – and not all demagogues are populist. Certainly, he wanted a majority and he’s got it. But it turns out his voters were, on average, wealthier than the voters of his opponent; most of the policies he has proposed are not advantageous to the popular majority; and he and his milieu are composed of some of the richest people in the world. But the latter wouldn’t be so important if their appointment wouldn’t be consonant with the anti-popular measures he’s proposing. He does not, in any sense, represent the interests of the popular majority.

It’s very paradoxical that now it is egalitarians who are accused of being the elite in virtue of the simple fact that they happen to be a minority at the moment. But were utopian socialists in the 1830s the elite? I think the Paris bankers and Saint-Simonists and Orléanists were the elite, and the fact that utopian socialists were a small minority didn’t make them elitist. So it is totally ridiculous to consider, for example, liberal and leftist university people in America as being the elite. The elite is on Wall Street, in the secret services, in the military, in Washington DC. Those are the people who have the prestige and power of traditional elites. Putting everything upside down – and not in fact, only rhetorically – is not a very valuable method of political analysis or social theory.

But we can conversely ask whether there is a necessary connection between populism and emancipatory politics?

This link is contingent, but there is a greater chance for an egalitarian movement to have some emancipatory content than for an anti-egalitarian movement.

Does the contingency of this link between populism and emancipatory politics allow a sort of “betrayal of the left,” as you have recently discussed?

It might. The fact is that most social democratic parties have gone over to the neoliberal camp, for various reasons, mostly due to various social fears. But there’s nothing necessary for the white working class to become racist; it can be prevented, and it can be prevented by something that used to be called politics. This was the way in which you prevented such disasters from happening. But this way has been forgotten – and that’s a betrayal not necessarily by evil intentions, but it is nevertheless a betrayal caused by a loss of nerves or by a too narrow horizon.

How would you respond to the argument that to move forward, for example, in emancipatory politics, we must go beyond the left-right distinction?

I think it’s crap (laughs). The left has a long history, but there are still a few very simple criteria by which you can judge whether or not someone is on the left. One is social, material and cultural equality, beyond equality of opportunity and beyond equal rights. The second is popular participation and sharing of power. If these two things are – especially concomitantly – present, you can speak of a left. No right-wing party or movement can satisfy these two criteria. The fact that now everybody is pretending to go beyond class is of course an important phenomenon that is not to be denied. The left liberal camp judges equality by certainly very important stratifying factors of ethnicity, race, gender, age, and state of health, but while doing so, it neglects class – though this has been changed somewhat by the appearance of people like Bernie Sanders and by the successes and defeats of the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese left.

The ruling class thinks that proletarians are yahoos and as such, undeserving of respect, unworthy of education, and this is the conservative view the left is supposed to despise and fight.

Meanwhile, the right tells the white working class: “You are poorer not because of automation, robotization, digitalization, and not because of growing exploitation, but because of all those leftish young women in universities clamouring for equal rights for women and gays.” This is a propagandistic lie, but it has been taken, unnaturally, seriously. What did Caesar say to the Roman mob? “You are in a bad position because the decadent senate aristocracy is serving Greek and Asian interests and they don’t love Rome any longer because they have indulged in “unnatural” foreign habits and customs, are immoral and oversexed.” This is the oldest lie in history! No caste or class society can survive without trying to cheat the majority and convince it that it has a vested interest in the continued maintenance of inequality. But today, even the progressives indirectly blame the working class for the reactionary authoritarian and inegalitarian developments. That’s tragic (while being ridiculous at the same time), because this is giving in to the opinion of the ruling class. The ruling class thinks that proletarians are yahoos and as such, undeserving of respect – unworthy of education, for example – and condemned to the consumption of physical, biological and intellectual rubbish. This is the conservative view the left is supposed to despise and fight.

But don’t you hold in your argument an unnecessary distinction between class and other categories of identity? It can be greatly misunderstood as if the essence of the left was to exclusively focus on class conflict.

No, I wouldn’t deny that middle class feminists and gay liberationists are on the left. They are genuine and important aspects of any leftist politics. And if even old social democrats have been clever enough to realise that pensions for all and voting rights for women were part of the liberation struggle 120 years ago, why should we be more stupid than them? These are all our own struggles. In some of these struggles we have liberal allies, as in gender equality issues or the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities. But there are things for which socialists will never have any allies. When they say that political rule should not be based on the privileged position of a class, of wealthy and well-connected individuals, political groups, professional elites, aristocratic, ecclesiastical or military elites, or even ethnic or denominational majorities, they are alone.

Take these new movements we mentioned before. All the leaders of Momentum have been working in Brussels and the EU as assistants and interns. They belong to the managerial middle class that is now supposed to have all the intellectual excellence you can muster. Those are the people “in the know.” In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it was always said that you needed the rule of an educated upper class (“quality,” as the British used to say), not to give in to the brutish instincts of the rabble. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, “quality” would mean people with a degree, people who would be officers in the army or at the upper echelons of the civil service and who were “satisfaktionsfähig,” those who could provoke or be provoked to duel. Only they were supposed to possess “honour.” The educational advantage was always masquerading as the sole basis of superiority.

Look what’s happening in countries as modern as Germany. You know what some people say against Martin Schulz? That he doesn’t have a high school diploma. They pretend to have nothing against his simple policeman father, but still say he should have gone to university – as if the sons of poor people would have the same chances as others. Here socialists will remain socialists and others won’t be socialists. Society must be changed if indeed we want to escape these social and cultural inequalities from which we are suffering.

Speaking about capitalism and social change: Can we detach the critique of capitalism from the practice of solidarity?

We cannot circumvent power; power is too powerful. Escaping the power struggle to keep our theoretical purity and our good conscience is not an option.

No, and we shouldn’t. This is the old, old story of the indifference of radicals towards gradual social reform. In this respect, I am quite an admirer of Lenin – though in other ways I’m not – because at the beginning of the 20th century, he understood very well that in combination of being active in parliament and local government (if possible), doing conspiratorial, underground work (in any case) and organizing trade unions, one should never lose from sight where we stand and what our different goals are. Let’s look today at making elderly people’s lives more tolerable: I am enthusiastically on the side of those who want to increase pensions. Life is being prolonged without good life being prolonged, and this may be resolved by gradual reform. I would push for such reforms, although I don’t think that this will emancipate humankind and end alienation. But if it mitigates suffering, I am for it.

Concerning solidarity, I always wonder what should be our strategy. Are we supposed to tackle the state, appropriate the state, or build autonomous networks of solidarity which can bypass the malfunctioning public sector?

Many people after ’89 put their faith in civil society, the Occupy movement, anti-globalisation… Let’s face it: these tactics have been defeated. We cannot circumvent power, because power is too powerful. I want, if you wish, an old kind of politics. The old oppressive capitalist state has new allies: social media and various other platforms of civil society. And for this to be changed, the left ought to try again to influence, modify, change power. Starting from “speaking truth to power,” to ending with conquering power. Such methods must be invented and the methods of the past inventoried and checked.

However, one can argue that parliamentary systems might become irrelevant. It is true that their role and rationale is seriously in question. Even if I were a liberal, I would hesitate as to whether or not parliamentary nation-states will survive. So, I am agnostic about methods, but I believe that by relinquishing real politics that entail power and control over state violence, we won’t get anywhere. Escaping the power struggle to keep our theoretical purity and our good conscience is not an option. Of course, I wish the reverse would be true. Who wants to go to the smallest little village and discuss with old clericalist peasants the virtues of direct democracy? I used to be a professional politician for a very short time, and I remember that it’s very tiring. But it cannot be circumvented. Primitively, if you are on the side of the people, you should first try to talk to the people, and second to do something for the people.

One last question. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it seems as if it is the West that is catching up with the East, not vice versa. Do you believe that the experience of the autocratic regimes of Putin, Orbán, Kaczyński or Fico give the Eastern European left some potential to become a sort of avant-garde of anti-establishment politics?

There is another lesson to the events of 1989, and that is how easy it is to change a social system. We are living witnesses to the fact that sudden changes are possible.

 This would be exactly what Lenin and Trotsky believed in 1905: that because of the extreme nature of the Tsarist autocracy, Russia was the weakest link. Indeed, I think that we are, in a way, more modern than the West; there is no genuine aristocracy or nobility anymore and tradition is extremely weak (this is why East European intellectuals are talking about it so much). But there is one difference between Russia in 1905 and where we are today: in Russia, there was this self-sacrificing heroism of the underground revolution, the Narodnaya Volya. We may have autocracy, but we certainly don’t have the nice old nihilists, since we are not even disappointed by Christianity anymore. Can you imagine leftist movements today saying they are the dead on furlough, as Eugen Leviné said, the great revolutionary in Bavaria? (“Wir Kommunisten sind alle Tote auf Urlaub.”) Or that they are the future martyrs of the communist movement? This is not the age for such people.

However, for a short while, we have been directly exposed to the illusions of liberal capitalism, which has been a very harsh lesson. And there is also another lesson, because the events of 1989 show how easy it is to change a social system. There weren’t millions dead, and the nationalised economy was suddenly privatised, and the Red Army melted into the air. We are living witnesses to the fact that sudden changes are possible. Thus, we shouldn’t despair, although our forces are negligible at the moment. There are many people who say they are on the “left,” including even some reactionary, nationalist clowns such as Mr. Fico, but the serious left is not so much weak as it is small. There is determination, there is seriousness, but the true left is very small and very often is buried in theory and in history. I wouldn’t call that weakness, for weakness would entail being unserious about this business. But this is not true.

So of course, we must return to politics, and in a serious way. Not by putting up micro-parties and getting a few thousand votes. It’s very respectable, but it’s very exhausting and it’s not worth it. But sometimes you can make a gesture and show your true colours. That’s a tactical consideration. For this reason, I think parties like the Polish Razem are useful attempts, although they are too streamlined for my taste. But that’s a question of detail. Overall, the old problems of the reformist and revolutionary ways should be re-discussed under the new circumstances we are currently facing. Let’s not forget that the enemy is enormously powerful. European socialism was defeated everywhere by fascism in the 1920s and the 1930s – everywhere, without exception – even where the fascist counter-revolution was pre-emptive, which is very well understood by Ernst Nolte. What we’re facing is not fascism, although there are striking similarities – especially the racist mobilization of the popular masses against their own best interests. The class enemy has not changed much and it is not going to forgive us if we prove that we mean what we say.

Lukáš Likavčan

Lukáš Likavčan is a philosopher, environmental activist, and regular contributor to A2larm.cz

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Lukáš Likavčan is a philosopher, environmental activist, and regular contributor to A2larm.cz