Revolution or Reform
(with Iván Szelényi)
From George Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe, 1989-1994
(New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995) pp. 34-40.
All Rights Reserved.

Twentieth-century Hungarian history has been defined by rightist and leftist revolutionary experiments that promise - after the defeat of an internal enemy or the formation of radically new structures and elites - to replace the old, rotting society with a new, healthy, cohesive one, a society free of conflict. The rightists promised racial, that is, ethnic homogeneity, the leftists homogeneity on the basis of class origin. The experiments of both proved unsuccessful except in causing untold suffering.

Most thinking Hungarians hope that the country's latter-day political democracy will revive the often interrupted development of a Hungarian middle class. We are inclined to regard the current transition in Hungary as reform rather than revolution or counterrevolution, though we cannot rule out the danger of its leading to the creation of new order with a new revolutionary rhetoric.

Generalizing from the history of philosophy and from social ethics, we hold that reform movements are in the long run more effective and more humane than revolutions. They humiliate fewer people, are less damaging to self-respect, disrupt fewer lives and families, and are less likely to punish the innocent. Concepts like "calling to account," "settling scores," and "retaliation" are part and parcel of the concept of revolution, and the demands of "revolutionary justice" push civil law into the background.

Revolutionary dynamics fosters the belief that there is one overriding truth and that it can be represented solely by the ideologically pure - a belief that legitimizes the ever increasing power of the vanguard (that is, the Party), the sole source of ideologically pure thinkers. Consequently, what the ideology labels "correct" its followers must consider positive and its enemies negative. The bourgeois mind is skeptical of such an approach: it posits a variety of truths and interests and is therefore tolerant of, and even curious about, ideas differing from its own basic way of thinking.

Another reason we hope the present turn to a bourgeois society will be more a matter of reform than revolution is that it will mean less of a wrench in people's lives. We now know how unjust the wholesale condemnation of the interwar elite, urban middle class, peasantry, and civil servants proved to be; we know that the collective discrimination it caused forced large numbers of people to feel shame for their past and even hide it.

Yet now as ever it is clear that the purity and moral legitimacy of those who make the most noise about injustice need to be questioned. The ideological fervor of the neophyte, the hope on the part of the mediocre that politics will let them run rings around the talented, the compulsion of yesterday's collaborators to point the finger at others in an effort to divert attention from themselves - such less-than-noble motives, grudges in search of targets, and plain old envy go hand in glove with the revolutionary's call for revenge. Let us hope that as the twentieth century draws to a close, the newly revitalized Hungarian middle class will find a way to temper these inhumane East European propensities.

All Hungarians now middle-aged or older have spent the major part of their lives under state socialism and have no desire to think of virtually their entire adult past as a dark age of shame and defeat. Critical self-examination is by no means alien to their mentality, but they would like to see a certain continuity in their lives and the lives of their families, a modicum of respect for themselves and their principles. The life experience of a generation or two cannot be simply written off. Just as it made no sense to reduce a thousand years of Hungarian history to the bleak tableau of "enslavement and servility," it would be mindless to condemn all that happened over the past few decades and all the players in a drama in which after all each of us had a role.

If we had to sum up the essence of a civil society in one sentence, we would refer to what might be called the autonomy of the spheres, that is, the fact that in a civil society politics is separate from administration, the economy, science, culture, and religion. Who belongs or belonged to which political party or who professes or professed which political principles is a private affair.

If we truly wish to change our system, we cannot be satisfied with one party's taking the other's place. That would be no more than a change in government. Changing the system entails changing the very rules of the game. In a civil society the only people eligible for nonpolitical positions are those who are professionally qualified and have proved their worth.

Political discrimination has decimated the reserve of Hungarian professionals on more than one occasion in the course of this century. It began with the revolutionary Hungarian Communist regime in 1919 and the counterrevolutionary regime that toppled it, continued with the persecution of the Jews during the thirties and forties, and resumed after 1945, when the Communists first declared all bourgeois professionals their enemies, systematically removing them from positions of power, and later turned on their own, less-than-reliable, Communist-trained professionals as well. Finally, there were the waves of emigration of professionals following each political upheaval. The greater the political disaster, the greater the pressure on them to leave. Convinced as we are that a new wave of political discrimination would once more set back the development of a Hungarian middle class, we hope that profes-sionally qualified civil servants, managers, journalists, and scientists will remain in positions commensurate with their abilities.

It is only natural that in a multiparty democracy people elected to office should change when the party in power changes. But public administration, if it is to be professional, requires that musical chairs be limited to the highest echelons. The day-to-day functions on both the national and local levels must be carried out by professional civil servants, for whom they represent a lifelong career. This dual arrangement ensures that policies will be revitalized yet continuity maintained.

During our earlier research we met a number of heads of agricultural cooperatives and officials of ministries and local councils and the like who, given the framework within which they had to operate, did a perfectly decent, honest job. We might add that in the late seventies the Kádár regime started reversing state socialism's virtually official policy of counter-selection by appointing qualified professionals to state and even Party functions. The very fact that this new elite began to behave like a professional intelligentsia was a major factor in the relatively civilized, nonviolent transition from communism to the current regime. It would be both senseless and unfair to brand these key transition figures as collaborators and exclude them from participation in future regimes. We would especially stress the virtue of this ethical and social stance in the politically neutral realm of science and culture - politically neutral in the sense that its practitioners weigh pros and cons rather than carry out political goals.

If research and teaching posts on the university and academy levels, positions of leadership in the institutes of art and literature, and prizes for outstanding achievement in the arts and sciences continue to be allotted on the basis of political loyalty - now divided among the followers of several parties instead of one - then we will have yet another revival of our East European feudal tradition. Proponents of grafting this one-party principle onto a multiparty system may try to defend it by claiming it is only a temporary measure necessary to rectify former injustices, but we feel that once instated it would be likely to gain a foothold.

We are at a crossroads. We can go the route of revolutionary rhetoric, which promises quick results but in fact, in our experience, holds a nation back. Or we can choose the political approaches we deem to be the most evenhanded, the ones likely to harm as few people as possible. We are convinced that this humanitarian strategy is not only more virtuous than the cult of revolution; we are convinced that it is more effective as well.


"Revolution or Reform" from THE MELANCHOLY OF REBIRTH by George Konrád, translated by Michael Henry Heim, copyright ©1991 by George Konrád, English translation copyright ©1995 by Harcourt Brace & Company, reproduced by permission of the publisher.

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