Observation of intellectual life in Hungary today provides a fascinating picture of a nation living in two worlds and, in certain ways, profiting by both. “East” and “West” become suddenly realities, cultural as well as political. Soviet occupation has compelled the intellectuals to study Marxist writings, in fields where their Western colleagues, even the leftist ones, are completely uninformed. The quality of these works depends on the talent of the one who undertakes the analysis and the writing. They may be wooden imitations of Party directives, or they may offer an original way of looking at events. Often both Party and writers playsafe, as witness the very large number of reprints from classical authors from Homer to Schelling, for which the modern authors write usually excellent introductions and explicatory notes. Marxist reevaluation of the classics is not included.
In regard to the writing of history, a delicate and risky exercise under Party scrutiny, I was struck by the revisionist interpretations by historian Istvan Nemeskurthy of the peasant war in 1514 (the so-called Dozsa insurrection) and of the annihilation of the Second Hungarian Army in the Ukraine, in 1943. Although Nemeskurthy portrays the Soviet side in flattering colors, his scholarship offers something new, not found in the earlier, “national/aristocratic” version. He interprets both crucial turns of history as the failure and blind ness of upper classes who ignored popular and national interests. Not a word, of course, of the horrors and servitude into which the new leadership has led the nation.
Naturally, this is a purely Marxian way of writing history, but the style is lively and the psychological penetration independent of the Marxist-Leninist schema. In another analysis, Janos Rathmann’s study of Herder, the cliches are more visible-the description of Herder, as pointing the way to historicism, thus to Hegel and Marx-yet scholarship there too is impeccable and the documentation vast, leaning mostly on East German sources.
These two rather widely differing cases suggest a skillful assimilation of Marxist tenets, without abandoning the canons of Western scholarship, mostly of German origin. This German orientation is a natural thing for most Hungarian scholars who, for historical reasons, have regarded Germany as providing the best models for works of erudition. The fact that their attitude has not changed since 1945 indicates that not Russia but the West remains the source and transmitter of culture. We may read it as a signal of future political realities: despite intense communist propaganda-by now more a nuisance than an intolerable interference with matters cultural-Hungarian scholarship remains firmly rooted in Western values, transforming Marxist roadblocks into road signs of Western orientation.
Insofar as Soviet erudition is at all integrated in Hungarian intellectual life, the works appearing in Moscow are mediated through German distribution. Germany has remained the central cultural storehouse of the entire East European area.
Sociology ought to be, in communist estimation, a par excellence Marxist discipline. To some extent it has become so in East Europe, where sociologists cannot ignore Russian and East German scholarship in this field. Yet, Hungary has developed its own sociological trends, with dissidents George Konrad and Gabor Hajnal as the standard-bearers. Elemer Hankiss and some of the samizdat sociologists also stand out in opposition to the Party witi1 their independent studies of local realities. Sociographers thus offer documentation of conditions that the regime cannot deny: drugs, drunkenness, and sex among early teenagers, the dreariness of life under ever-present control, the high rate of suicide and divorce, the official lies and corruption which poison the social atmosphere.
The work of Hungarian sociologists shows the nation-corrupting mechanisms that come into existence when power is overconcentrated and no individual responsibility is allowed. In sum, many Hungarian sociologists today have gotten rid of the “value-free” school of thought, and have found their primary role as defenders of the national community’s interests, as spokesmen for its survival.
Clashes are inevitable with the Party, and the latter often yields ground. I witnessed, for example, an interview on television with three university deans (a position here much more prestigious and demanding than in America). Their analyses pinpointed the ills from which both students and the school system suffer. Perhaps nowhere in the West, ridden with political party strife and ideological bias, could such a free debate take place. The freedom of tone and expression of this interview was striking and refreshing because the deans con tended only against one power, the Party, and not against myriad pressure groups, and because they represented only one interest, the nation’s cultural survival. It may sound paradoxical, but the fact that all blame, from economy to illiteracy, may be laid at the Party’s door, and that the accusers may refer to national (or linguistic, moral, or cultural) survival as the decisive motive contributes to a clearer debate than in societies plagued by the rule of lobbies.
East European freedom is notable in two areas: literature and film production. There is, naturally, a great amount of trash and a yet greater quantity of conformist writing. Yet, the merciless description and structural analysis of communist society and its hidden castes and classes, both in the “Stalin era” and after, is something that we are simply not accustomed to in the West. We have a slogan-ridden “protest literature” and protest films, written by intellectuals for intellectuals; they have brutal satires and exposés.
The novels of George Moldova, written in a sturdy, no-nonsense style, tell the story “as it was,” the, blatant injustices, the abuses, the privileges of Party Elite, the flatteries, the humiliations, and the tortures. Then there are films ridiculing the Party, its policies, its officials, its inhumanity. The setting in such novels and films is in a supposedly distant past, a generation ago; but authors and public know that this is also a literature of warning that it should not happen again, and that it in many respects is still going on. The ultimate nonidentification bf the it creates, according to some, a stifling climate; according to others, a stimulating one. I think it is a question of talent for the “Aesopian mode of writing.” The kind of semi-oppressive climate under which Hungarian writers labor at least teaches style, the economy of thought and expression–qualities rare among current American writers.
No tableau of cultural life is complete without discussion of the infrastructure which helps or hinders creativity. I mean by infrastructure the higher education, libraries and bookstores, study circles, intellectual exchange, art academies, drama schools, and also the relationship of writer or artist with the public. To these auxiliary factors is added, in totalitarian regimes, the relationship between writer and the regime’s representatives.
The State (Party) is ever-present. I was browsing in a bookstore when batches of new books arrived. I gathered from the conversation between transporter and manager that the shipment had come from the State printer, approved by a Party comrade, himself under orders from comrades yet higher. The existence of this bureaucratic chain of command excludes the printing and distribution of books by respected East European dissidents or by Solzhenitsyn, Chesterton, Bernanos, Pascal, or Guardini. Also unavailable are books about entire disciplines and literatures, old and new: esoteric works, medieval scholasticism, non-Marxist anthropology, the latest in mythology, and many others.
Hungarian scholars may face a veto on books they publish or order from abroad. They then engage in long negotiations with the officialdom which may finally let the package pass or publication be approved. But at the price of how much annoyance! Scholars, film directors, artists are invited to lecture abroad. It is up to the Party to approve, refuse, or drag out matters. When it approves, there is often a quid pro quo, a humiliating scrutiny. By definition, the Party is reluctant to authorize controversial persons or oeuvres. On the other hand, it needs a favorable Western image and a favorable reception of Hungarian ex ports, whether textile products, films at the Cannes festival, or other palpable demonstrations of unimpeded creativity. It also needs to reassure its citizens that Hungary still belongs to the West, an important factor for the Hungarian psyche today. It is an indirect spiritual guarantee that the nation will not be absorbed by the limitless and amorphous Asia, whether called Byzantinism or Warsaw Pact.