Hungary: on the Latin American road?

March 20, 1991

TAMAS KRAUSZ is a leader of Hungarian Left Alternative, a left organisation that has grown out of discussions of socialism outside the official state and party structures over the past 15 years. He was interviewed by STEVE PAINTER for in Budapest.

Could you describe the main features of the present political situation?

We are living among the ruins of state socialism, and neither of the two main political coalitions is able to offer a way out of this situation. The new parties that won most of the votes in the [April 1990] national elections have used up their moral capital with surprising speed.

Especially since the taxi drivers' strike and blockade last October, many people have begun to understand that the change of government has brought very little real change.

The old structures of the state have simply been occupied by a new elite, which is in some ways worse than the old Communist elite. Even the pattern of corruption has not changed very much.

Since the elections, people have waited and waited, and now they begin to understand that the two parties, the two big coalitions, have not changed the structure of the society and have simply installed a new elite.

In some cases even the personalities might not have changed very much since the new parties all have some leaders who came from the old Socialist Workers [Communist] Party.

How did last October's taxi drivers' strike affect the situation?

After the strike, the nationalist [Hungarian Democratic Forum — HDF] government began to understand how little popular support it had, and it became more cautious.

It decided that it had already passed through the most difficult period of the transition of power, and that it could now proceed more consciously towards the establishment of a centralised, authoritarian regime with parliamentary trappings, perhaps in the style of the extreme right pre-Communist regime of Admiral Horthy [1919-44].

The government decided that it needed greater centralisation, more ideology and more police support, and it set about buying support for itself in the top ranks of the police and the army.

The new elite's neo-Horthyist strategy and style is not very attractive to many people, particularly to the young, but in Hungarian history the new elite can't find any other model than that of the old, pre-Communist elite.

Some of the older people who can remember back before the Communists now say that the old elite is coming back up from the sewers.

You have spoken and written about the Latin-Americanisation of Eastern Europe. What do you mean by this term?

The International Monetary Fund strategy will make Eastern Europe more like Latin America than Western Europe. This region could very easily become the permanently poor part of Europe, hopelessly indebted and probably ruled by dictatorial governments.

But this is a dangerous course for any government because it involves dismantling the old social welfare system of the Kadar regime [1956-88], the system that made Hungary the happiest barracks in Eastern Europe. It provided people's basic, everyday needs.

In the elections, the HDF and all of the main parties preached what we call the holy trinity: marketisation, democratisation, nationalism. But now we have the reality: the marketisation, to the extent that it succeeds, will take the form of bureaucratic capitalist monopolisation; the greater political democracy could very easily give way to bureaucratic dictatorship; so, only the nationalism is available in unlimited quantities.

The new government has delivered more political democracy, but now it is destroying the old social democracy: the right to work, free education, free health care, etc, and they have nothing to substitute for it.

Many people are now much poorer than they were under the old system. Hungary will face some very sharp social conflicts if the new system is able to feed the people nothing more than nationalist ideology.

It is fashionable in Eastern European and Soviet governing circles to present "the market" and privatisation as the solution to all of the region's economic problems. Why are the governments having so much difficulty getting these projects off the ground?

I don't think marketisation is possible in the USSR. If they couldn't marketise Russia in the last 500 years, I don't think they can do it in the next 50.

In Hungary, privatisation will actually undermine the new parties that want to carry it out. Sooner or later, people will understand that their factories were stolen from them. Perhaps the political left will not be very strong in this country for the next 10 years, but it is certain that we will help people to understand that the factories were stolen from them.

There are 10 million people in Hungary, and the nationalist government says we will have 500,000 or 600,000 unemployed. If the families of uded, that means about 2 million people will be directly affected by unemployment.

And perhaps the unemployment will not be just 500,000. It could reach a million.

So far, I don't think people are starving in Hungary, although some of the old people, the retired, are facing a lot of economic difficulties. There are 2 million people living in or close to poverty.

There is very little difference between the economic policies of the HDF government under Joszef Antal and those of the preceding Stalinist government under Karoly Grosz. Antal, like Grosz before him, is mainly concerned with carrying out the policies of the IMF.

After the taxi blockade, the government decided to speed up the privatisation. But the Eastern European state socialist tradition contains an element of egalitarianism, and this makes it possible for the left to point out that the state enterprises are a product of the people's work and that, if they are to be privatised, the managerial, financial and state bureaucracy should not be allowed simply to divide them between themselves.

Besides the egalitarian tradition, a second obstacle is that privatisation presupposes a lot of capital in private hands. But there is not much of this in Eastern Europe. Nor is sufficient capital coming in from abroad.

A third obstacle is the absence of a civil society, which necessarily would include independent organisations of the working class, such as the trade unions that exist in England, the United States or Germany.

Marketisation and privatisation also cannot work unless most of the workers are prepared to be very patient and make great sacrifices for these goals.

What is the role of the left in the present situation?

None of the parties has deep social roots. So one of the biggest differences between us and the new bourgeois parties is that they are getting money from international sources. The liberals (Free Democrats) are supported by American money, and the nationalists (HDF) are supported by German money.

Social Democracy really is a dead current here. Kadar carried out their program. He established a social welfare system, so the Social Democrats have nothing to offer.

Most of the Socialist Party's members are old people; they have many pensioners. The situation is even worse in the new SWP. Maybe 80 per cent of their members are old people.

Meanwhile, the left is dispersed and rather discredited, but we have begun to reorganise. I don't think the Hungarian left will come up s for the present situation on its own. This is a task for the left in the whole of Eastern Europe. We are all facing similar problems.

Too many Western leftists appear not to understand that during our 40 years of state socialism the poor people had some level of social and cultural support. It's true that the state power demoralised and corrupted the working class, but at the same time the working class lived reasonably well.

Left Alternative is not a party. It consists of people from various parties as well as non-party people, and the main point of agreement is support for self-government, for workers' councils, against bureaucracy, against capitalism and against Stalinism.

We have about 100 active members and a bigger group of supporters, and we are everywhere: in the trade unions, in the universities, in the new political coalitions as well as the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. We publish, we organise and we educate.

Over time, as the multiparty system develops, I think there will be big changes in the existing parties. And the left parties will arise from the trade unions, from the social organisations, from independent people's organisations.

A lot depends on developments in the Soviet Union. If the right-wing nationalists and populists like Yeltsin win out, Eastern Europe will lose any chance to rise again for perhaps 20 years. We will be swamped by a wave of nationalist populism led by people like Lech Walesa.

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