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A life in search of emancipation: Gáspár Miklós Tamás (1948-2023)

Gáspár_Miklós_Tamás_Budapest_1990

Budapest, Hungary – Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás died on January 15.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, TGM as he was known in Hungary (or Gazsi to his friends) is rightly lauded as one of the last true public intellectuals of Hungary and a giant of the Hungarian and global left. He was a Marxist philosopher, popularising notions such as “post-fascism”, and a truly prolific columnist, whose essays and columns were an important part of Hungarian public life.

His life until around 2000 was like that of so many in his generation; born in Cluj-Napoca as the child of disillusioned Hungarian communists who risked it all only to realise that they participated in the creation of yet another nationalist dictatorship, he embraced the New Left and then conservative liberalism.

Moving from Romania to Hungary (with its less oppressive regime and lack of anti-Hungarian oppression), he became a prominent member of the Democratic Opposition, a dissident group dreaming of a more liberal and more democratic Hungary. After 1989, he became an MP for the then-major liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ).

Perhaps he could have been, like the other great philosopher of his generation, János Kis, a theorist of this new, liberal capitalist regime. Once the leader of SZDSZ, Kis is a great example of what he could have been, having spent the last 30 years as the great Rawlsian prophet of liberal democracy, while of course never denying its weaknesses and shortcomings.

TGM instead re-embraced Marxism, at a time when it was regarded as the fallen ideology of a failed and deeply corrupt dictatorship. This, I believe, is really all that you need to know about him.

His detractors would often see his zig-zaggy intellectual journey as a great shortcoming, although not even his critics would see this journey as opportunistic.

However, that would be wrong. For all his life, he worked on the great Enlightenment project of emancipation, a project that he would in his later life see fulfilled not by liberal democracy and capitalism that he successfully fought for (its later decline was not his making), but by communism that may perhaps never come.

Unlike those he would dub Rousseauian socialists, he has never rejected liberal capitalism as evil, or worse than its predecessors. He accurately emphasised the “Faustian” role of capitalism in Marx’s writing, and its importance in bringing about humanity’s salvation.

This idea might also soften the great contradiction of his very regular, highly moral columns on daily politics, that he himself, following the poet and journalist Endre Ady, once called his double persuasion.

A fierce critique of Viktor Orbán, he would often find himself on the side of liberal capitalism against Orbán’s self-styled illiberalism, while being a committed communist anticapitalist. Undoubtedly partly due to the dualistic nature of Hungarian public discourse that seeks to categorise everyone into one camp or another, TGM was very conscious of his preference of liberalism over what he called post-fascism.

This, too, makes sense when read in a broadly Hegelian light where (liberal) universalism, for all its folly and hypocrisy, is a step in the path towards (communist) emancipation. As this attests, he was, ironically, a more faithful admirer of the liberal project than many of his self-styled liberal contemporaries.

He was also known to always recommend “old-fashioned” erudition (great books of literature and social theory, as well as classics) over the spectacles of the cultural industry, right until his last published essay. Again, it would be superficial to describe this as merely small-conservatism.

For TGM, disdain for the cultural products consumed by the working class was not a contradiction of leftism, but very much part of his Marxian project. For him, one of the last true believers of Bildung, liberating the worker from television through reading the greats was a step towards the liberation of humankind.

TGM, of course, was not read by an organised working class that could heed his advice. He would recognise and lament that there was no longer such an organised working class to speak of. His audience was an educated middle class that often would not subscribe to his left-wing politics.

He is kindly remembered not just by the Hungarian New Left (who of course mourn in him a great friend and comrade), but by liberals and conservatives as well. Even Viktor Orbán thought it important to remember his former comrade. It is bewildering now, but they once had similar politics.

Hungarians have lost one of their most original thinkers, and apparently, this at least is a loss we can share.

By Ivan Merker