Hungary: Intellectuals in Power?

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Ivan Szelenyi

Ivan Szelenyi, a long time Hungarian democratic activist, teaches macro-sociology at UCLA. He co-authored The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (English translation by Andrew Arato and R.E. Allen published in 1979) with Gyorgi Konrad, a leading Hungarian novelist. This article is part of a paper presented earlier this year.

OUR BOOK ended in 1974 with these sentences: “Paradoxically, no transcendent intellectual activity is thinkable in Eastern Europe so long as intellectuals do not formulate the immanence of the intelligentsia’s evolution into a class. That however must wait for the abolition of the ruling elite’s hegemony and the consolidation of the power of the intellectual class as a whole. As to when that hypothetical third period of socialism will arrive, we can only say that when some East European publisher accepts this essay for publication it will be here, and not before.”

(We had distinguished two earlier periods of socialism: Stalinism, in which the bureaucracy monopolizes power, and Brezhnevism, in which the bureaucracy begins to open up to the intelligentsia but retains a hegemonic position.)

In November 1989, amidst crumbling walls and communist regimes, our book finally was published in Budapest by Gondolat, a government-owned publishing company. We owe answers to a few questions our readers may pose:

1) Is this an indication that intellectuals form a dominant class; does this support the claim that with the rise of Gorbachev to power, one could detect a revitalization of the “New Class project”?

2) If the answer to this question is yes, is the newly won power of the intellectuals a lasting phenomenon or just a brief era of transition? If it is likely to constitute a whole epoch can it be called socialist” in any meaningful way?

A proper answer to these questions would require more time and distance from current events. During the summer of 1989, after discussing these issues with Konrad in Budapest, we thought that we might eventually write a “second volume” on intellectuals and power. All we can do at this moment is offer a few working hypotheses.

Intellectuals and State Power

My answer to the first question is a qualified yes. The bureaucratic rank collapsed all over in Eastern Europe and is in shambles even in the USSR. This is consistent with the New Class theory we offered in The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power in two ways.

First intellectuals — or to be more specific, what could be called the intellectualization of the bureaucracy — undoubtedly played a significant role in the rather unexpected collapse of communism, in the bloodless “velvet revolutions” against the bureaucracy, and in the astonishing readiness of the elite to dissolve itself and its organizations, such as the Communist party.

One of the reasons why the bureaucracy demonstrated so little resistance can be attributed to the changing pattern of recruitment into the party and state bureaucracy over the last two decades. In Hungary, at least during the Kadarist consolidation, the party consciously tried to appeal to the highly educated and went out of its way to bring good young professionals into nomenklatura positions, in particular into the party apparatus.

As these “Communist yuppies” replaced the old-line bureaucrats, the ethos of the party apparatus changed. These young professional cadres, unlike those recruited from the working class and peasantry, did not depend exclusively on political bosses.

Their personal fate is not tied to the future of the party. If their party job goes, they believe with their marketable skills that they can return to their professions and earn better salaries by working for multinational corporations than by working for the party.

This has turned out to be a highly bourgeoisifled party elite, whose loyalties do not lie with communism. While some critics of The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power ridiculed us for thinking that a party cadre can be an intellectual, our prediction about the intellectualization of the bureaucracy — with its consequently devastating impact on the bureaucratic ranks order— proved to be a surprisingly accurate one.

Second: there is a power vacuum today in Eastern Europe. The old elite has collapsed, in the absence of a domestic bourgeoisie, the only serious contender to replace them is the intelligentsia.

A new political class is in formation, and this emergent new elite is exclusively recruited from the intelligentsia. Its members are historians, economists, sociologists, jurists, media-professionals. They all claim power — they all aspire to positions such as members of parliament, government ministers, presidents and mayors — on the grounds of their expertise as professionals.

If one wants to describe the power structure of Eastern Europe today (last days of January 1990), it can fairly confidently be characterized by the power struggles between different fractions of the intelligentsia. In Hungary the society, silently and quite apathetically, watches this struggle.

The new elite freezes wages and boosts prices, tries to control strikes and offers Lenin shipyard [in Gdansk, Poland, birthplace of Solidarnosc in 1980 –ed.] to Mrs. Barbara Piasecka-Johnson (U.S. millionaire), while promising her industrial peace.

Undoubtedly intellectuals today in Eastern Europe have more power than they have ever had in their history. And what used to be a conflict between “society and powers is rapidly becoming a conflict between intellectual elites and the rest of the society.

Can They Keep It?

My answer to the second question is: I do not know. Intellectuals usually play a prominent, vanguard role in revolutionary social change, when one social formation collapses and a new one is emerging. But these vanguard intellectuals usually are unable to keep the power that they grab during revolutions.

As the new social order consolidates itself, they lose their power and Surrender some of their political privileges to other classes or social categories, such as the propertied bourgeoisie or the bureaucracy — the former happened after the French, the latter after the Russian revolutions.

Will the intelligentsia be able to set a new historic precedent this time? Will it keep its power, constituting itself as a genuine new class which can reproduce itself in the position of power? Or will it simply surrender its power to a new bourgeoisie? In other words, is the current revolution much else than a probably historically brief transition from socialism or communism to capitalism?

I think that at the current historic conjuncture it is impossible to answer this question. The social formation that exists at present in Eastern Europe is unquestionably not a capitalist formation. Eastern Europe today is a socialist mixed economy with a dominant statist sector, or state mode of production — which still employs full time probably up to 85-90 percent of the labor force — combined with a rapidly growing private sector.

In terms of its economic institutions and social structure, then, contemporary Eastern Europe is almost exactly what we (Konrad and Szelenyi) predicted the third epoch of socialism would be.

At the same time, there are indications of the total collapse of the statist sector. A significant fraction of the intelligentsia by now wants to “go all the way.” Liberalism is the major political ideology, which coupled with neo-classical economics and with deep sympathies toward the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan calls for “shock therapy,” for an unrestrained re-privatization, for the wholesale, unrestricted transformation of public property into private property.

This re-privatization may mean just transforming the public firms into the private property of managers — according to Elemer Hankiss and Jadwiga Staniszkis a lot of this is happening both in Hungary and in Poland — or it may mean transferring Hungarian and Polish firms into the hands of foreigners, sometimes for real but more frequently for symbolic amounts of money.

This process of reprivatization to foreign capital took place in Hungary under the tutelage of Mr. Palmer, U.S. ambassador to Budapest In an interview granted to the New York Times in January 1990, he talked about a “gold fever” in Hungary, comparing Budapest to a “boom town.”

A week later he resigned his ambassadorial position, announcing his acceptance of a job as the chief executive of the investment firm that funds Hungarian reprivatization. What a smart man. He knows what he is talking about.

This sudden and somewhat unexpected opening to capitalism created new perspectives for East European intellectuals. I would not be surprised if the young Hungarian prime minister, a Harvard-trained economist known to be Mr. Palmer’s tennis partner, emerges eventually as a board member of one of the new “joint ventures,” and I would not be worried about his future, either professionally or financially, after the electoral defeat of his party (the successor of the Communist party) in March 1990.

New Class with Short Life

There is a New Class project unfolding in Eastern Europe, but it may not last long. Just by the time the intelligentsia gets hold of power, it may let it slip away.

Intellectuals may decide they are more interested either in well-paid jobs at multinational corporations, or in becoming private proprietors — a new bourgeoisie themselves — either by receiving rewards from the foreign investors for whom they facilitate good deals or by figuring out ways to transform their positions as managers into proprietors of the formerly public firms.

Anyway, I just do not know at present which way Eastern Europe may go. Does it have a chance to consolidate itself in a mixed economy? This would mean preservation of a significant portion of its state sector, with the unleashing of some private business. In this dual economy a dual structure may emerge: A social balance may be created between bureaucracy and a new bourgeoisie under supervision of a “Super-master,” the political class of the intelligentsia.

But it is equally possible that Eastern Europe will all the way to market capitalism. My liberal friends in Hungary enthusiastically believe this will mean “joining Europe.” I hope they are right, but I fear they are wrong.

Europe is a long way from Eastern Europe, which never belonged to the West and moved rapidly East over the last forty years. A big jump from where these countries are now right into Western Europe impresses me as a courageous if somewhat adventurous move.

If this jump is not forceful enough, the region may land not in Stockholm or Amsterdam – where it is aspiring to be — but rather in Istanbul, Seoul or Honduras, where Hungarians, Poles and Romanians may not feel that comfortable.

The punch-line: Yes, intellectuals gained a lot of power, more than critics of the New Class theories or of The Intellectuals on the Road to Power usually liked to admit would ever be possible. But who knows if they can hold onto this power? They probably will not, and, like vanguard intellectuals after the “big bang,” they will pass their power on to some other historical agent.

In this case that new agent will most probably be international capital.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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