Sometimes being worthy, decent and honest isn’t enough.
Although at the time I moved in slightly more elevated circles than I do now, in the nine years I lived in Hungary I never met Árpád Göncz, Hungarian President for ten years in the nineties, who died on 6 October.
Yet in those early days after the so-called “regime change” in 1989 his name, words and image were everywhere. For many Hungarians he epitomised the new start after the collapse of Hungary’s soft version of Stalinism, a voice of reason amongst what was often utter chaos. Like a number of other East European Presidents in this period, Vaclav Havel for example, Göncz was an accomplished writer, translator and playwright, honing his skills while a prisoner in a Stalinist gaol after the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
With the change to parliamentary democracy, the highly respected Göncz became the President of Hungary. It was not an easy time. The political parties of post-Stalinist Hungary were, to put it mildly, a ragbag of opportunists, careerists and turncoats; corruption was rife — and got worse — while the economy was an utter shambles. Successive political parties and their Prime Ministers came and went. Through it all Göncz ploughed a lone furrow, using his skill, diplomacy and patience to try and steer Hungary away from an embrace with the right towards a centre-based, humanistic type of social democracy (he was a member of the Free Democrats, although the position of President is non-partisan). It is doing no injustice to his memory to say that in this he failed.
No political party in Hungary, then or since, has been prepared to reject the Stalinist past while at the same offering a programme which refuses the worst “robber baron” practices of neo-liberal capitalism. The workers and the poor have been marginalised and greedy swindlers, bankers and so-called entrepreneurs (a buzz word at the time) allowed to go on the rampage. Many political parties adopted policies and practices, particularly in the field of media censorship, little better than the Stalinists. Without any history of meaningful social democracy, and their only experience with “communism” being utterly tainted, Hungarians have often fallen back on the ideology of their pre-war parties such as the Smallholders, an agrarian-peasant based party whose politics and practices found little traction in modern-day Hungary except to stoke up nationalistic feelings and encourage the worst narrow-minded attitudes and xenophobia.
Göncz, once his period in office was over, must have looked at developments in Hungary with despair. He retired from public life in 2000 and his last years were plagued by illness. At the end of his life Hungary is in the grip of the elected dictatorship of Viktor Orbán and his Thatcherite Fidesz party. They have erected razor wire against refugees and turned Hungary into a kind of exclusion zone for foreigners — all of which would be anathema to the liberal-humanistic mind of Göncz.
The tragedy is that Göncz, who all agree was affable, honest, open-minded and adaptable, was never able or inclined to forge a political movement which would have taken Hungary in a different direction to the one in which Orbán and others have shunted it: the dead end of Central European Christian nationalism.
The failure is not Göncz’s alone; others bear responsibility too for accepting the supposed post-1989 neo-liberal consensus. Göncz and his generation, many of whom have honourable records in opposition to Stalinism, thought Parliamentary procedure and constitutionalism would be enough to guide Hungary in the new post-1989 dawn. It wasn’t. Instead, there was a crying need for a political movement to be built which would fight against the slide into xenophobia and political backwardness but it never happened.
Sometimes just being decent and honest isn’t enough. You need to get in there and fight your corner, throw away the Queensbury Rules, exchange blows with the enemy and forge a new path. It isn’t always pretty, but it is necessary.