Hungary Insight

Four freedoms of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition – Part one: János Kis and freedom of thought

Budapest, Hungary – In a weekly essay series, Kafkadesk discusses themes from the lives of key figures from the 1970s-1980s Hungarian Democratic Opposition. In this first part, we discuss János Kis and the concept of freedom of thought.

Liberal inspirations from Hungary’s recent past

Hungary’s illiberal present is casting a shadow on its liberal past. It can often feel like Hungary’s anti-democratic political settlement, right-wing hegemony, and illiberal ideology is a given, inevitable form of political settlement and natural ideological consensus in the country. That is far from true. 

Recently, there has been a significant emerging sub-culture and media network on the Hungarian progressive side as well in the form of the New Left. However, naturally, they primarily reached back to socialist and Marxist texts for ideological inspiration. 

On the other hand, there is a gaping hole in contemporary Hungarian ideological currents where liberalism is supposed to be, although this trend is not exclusive to Hungary. While it is true that parties that could be considered liberal are popular among young people in the country, even the point of their existence is questionable in an electoral autocracy. Besides, these parties don’t tend to openly describe themselves as liberal and their ideological toolkit or reference points in Hungarian historical memory seem to be non-existent. 

While in the present-day, Hungarian liberalism is nowhere to be seen – or at least its relevance and ability for intellectual innovation is close to zero – it has an extremely rich history. There are the reformers of the 1830s, the revolutionaries of 1848, and the great liberal party of the late 19th century that made significant steps to modernise the country. 

But there is also a more recent example. Liberalism played a significant role in opposition politics to Hungarian socialism in the second half of the 20th century. In János Kádár’s Hungary, the so-called Democratic Opposition, an informal group which grew out of disillusioned former communists, sociologists, sympathisers of the 1956 revolution, and intellectuals who were dissatisfied with Hungarian socialism, was the main progressive opposition group that questioned the status quo. 

After a brutally repressive Stalinist period, in 1956, Hungarians rose up to demand a more democratic form of government free from Soviet imperialism. The revolution was brutally crushed by the Soviet army and its participants were killed or jailed. János Kádár, who became the leader of Hungary after the revolution, oversaw the retaliation. However, starting in the 1960s, he led an effort of moderation within the party and the country. 

Many – but crucially not all – of those who were jailed after the revolution were freed, censorship was somewhat loosened, and the ruling elites did not expect fully committed ideological devotion to socialism from the general public as long as they did not openly agitate against it. Crucially, the government also undertook several economic reform programs which guaranteed a degree of economic welfare for a large portion of the Hungarian population. 

Despite its comparatively soft nature, Kádár’s Hungary was still a dictatorship. There were political prisoners, freedom of speech was curtailed, and the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party was not to be even contested by the formation of alternatives. This was the Kádárist deal: the rejection of the ideals of 1956 and the silencing of those who voiced them in exchange for relative economic welfare. Goulash communism was born. 

The Democratic Opposition, which by the 1980s found a relatively coherent liberal voice, fought against this status quo. They launched several samizdat papers and organised seminars, charitable organisations, and commemorative events of the 1848 and 1956 revolutions. 

By the 1980s, when the Kádárist regime was heavily dependent on loans from the West and therefore was wary of being seen as a repressive regime, the Democratic Opposition could become braver and more active. Though the copies of their samizdat publications were published in the thousands, their activities and ideas were often discussed on Radio Free Europe which, despite being illegal in the Eastern bloc, reached millions of people. 

The alternative public sphere the Democratic Opposition created became the main censorship-free venue to discuss political, sociological, and cultural topics, what a democratic Hungary could look like, and how it could come about. This second public sphere was a crucial factor that helped initiate the regime change and SZDSZ (The Alliance of Free Democrats), the party that grew out of the Democratic Opposition was one of the parties at the Hungarian Opposition Roundtable that discussed the details of the democratic transition with the ruling party. SZDSZ came close second in Hungary’s first democratic elections in 1990. 

There were countless figures that played a quintessential role in the success of the group. Some of them have written extensively about their lives in communist Hungary. The Democratic Opposition’s leader János Kis published his autobiography in 2021 in the form of the transcript of 27 conversations about his life with András Mink and Tamás Meszerics titled Szabadságra ítélve (Sentenced to Freedom). 

Ferenc Kőszeg published his life story in a serialised form for the Hungarian magazine Magyar Narancs which he later compiled in two separate books, K. történetei (K’s stories) in 2009 and Múltunk vége (The End of our Past) in 2011. He also wrote other shorter pieces about other aspects of his life with the use of pseudonyms titled A sors és a számla (Fate and the Bill, 2012) and Csonka négyes (The Incomplete Quartet, 2016).

Róza Hodosán published her memoir concerning her life under socialism in 2004 in a book titled Szamizdat történetek (Samizdat stories). Sadly, Ottilia Solt, who passed away at 53 in 1997, was unable to write an autobiography, however, her writings were compiled and published in two instalments in 1998 titled Méltóságot mindenkinek (Dignity for everyone).

The following is by no means a comprehensive history of anti-communist opposition politics in Hungary (there were other dissident groups alongside the Democratic Opposition, most prominently the Folkish Opposition, the precursor of centre-right MDF, the party that won the 1990 election) and not even that of the Democratic Opposition (there were several other key figures within the group whose works were also invaluable to its success). It is not even a short biography of four communist-era dissidents as their political careers after the change of regime will not be discussed here. 

This is an essay on four individuals in a tight-knit group, who valued their freedom so much that they decided to live freely in a fundamentally unfree world. What János Kis, Ottilia Solt, Ferenc Kőszeg, and Róza Hodosán – and through them, the Democratic Opposition as a whole – meant by freedom, how they exercised it, and what they can teach to present-day liberals are the questions it seeks to answer. 

János Kis and freedom of thought

Philosopher János Kis is considered to be one of the most iconic figures of the Democratic Opposition. He was a leading figure in the group – although the Democratic Opposition was not a movement and had no formal structure – and was elected to be the first leader of SZDSZ, Hungary’s liberal party post-communism that grew out of the Democratic Opposition. 

In 2021, Kis published his extensive autobiography titled Szabadságra ítélve (Sentenced to Freedom), counting more than 700 pages. It is not only an account of his life but also serves as an intellectual contemplation of his ideological journey. As such, what he thought of as freedom, and how much he valued the ability to exercise one’s intellectual freedom are also key themes of the book.

Kis was born into a Jewish Hungarian family in 1943. Though his family faced the antisemitism of 1940s Hungary, according to Szabadságra ítélve, Kis’ parents were primarily taken to labour camps because of their political views and not their Jewish heritage. Both of Kis’ parents were enthusiastic communists and members of the communist party, which was illegal in 1930-1940s Hungary. His father died during the last few days of the war but his mother returned from the labour camp of Bergen Belsen. 

After the war, Kis’ mother worked for the Communist Party. Thus, Kis attended the Gorky School for the children of the contemporary communist nomenklatura until it closed in 1956. This meant that Kis experienced the failed revolution of 1956 as a communist teenager. According to his recollection of the events, while he did not reject communism as an ideology as a result of the revolution, he began to wonder if its implementation in Hungary was right. 

Kis studied philosophy at university under the guidance of György Márkus who himself was a student of the legendary Marxist philosopher György Lukács. Kis and his generation of students were given the name “the Lukács kindergarten”, a nod to “the Lukács school,” the collective name for the somewhat older students Lukács taught directly. In the 1960s, Kis also embraced Lukácsism which, instead of Marxism-Leninism, advocated the return to Marx’s original writings with particular attention to his earlier works. 

After the repression of the 1956 revolution, the country’s new leader János Kádár brought a degree of moderation into Hungary; some prisoners were freed and the grip of the authorities loosened. Kis hoped that this, step-by-step, could result in a democratic form of socialism in Hungary. He was wrong. 

Like many others in his generation, Kis started turning away from Marxism after the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968. As he was a believer in communism since his childhood, in Szabadságra ítélve, he describes learning about the Warsaw Pact’s intervention in Prague as an existential crisis: 

“I don’t remember a moment in my life when I went through such a shock. The second the news reached my brain, I knew the life I had lived until then was over. I had hoped that the system could be made better. During my time at university and in my early career, I felt that the system was going through a process of democratisation. But in a single moment, I was consumed by uncertainty. I knew that the things that I had hoped would come true would never materialise.”

His disillusionment with Marxism also became apparent in Kis’ works. Though not yet ready to abandon Marxism completely, his 1972 work with his long-time collaborator György Bence and his mentor György Márkis titled Hogyan lehetséges a kritikai közgazdaságtan? (How is Critical Economic Theory Possible?, nicknamed Überhaupt) showed clear breaks with some traditional elements of Marxism. The text argued that Marx’s goals cannot be achieved through Marx’s proposed means.

Überhaupt argued that the philosophical intentions of Marx were to create a world where a person is able to fulfil their talents, where they are able to choose the activity through which they fulfil these talents (while having a wide range of options to choose from), and for the individual not to fulfil their talents through harming others but as part of a community and helping the advancement of the community as a whole through the process.

The text stated that these goals cannot be achieved through what the authors interpreted to be the means propagated by Marx; without a free market, state, and law, where all needs are considered and judged centrally. The authors wrote that this was because the conditions for such an environment to form are not only unlikely to come true in the real world but outright impossible. Nevertheless, they still considered Marx’s intentions to be the ideal goals to strive for and, because of this, still identified as Marxists. 

The final departure from Marxism

It was the reaction of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party to Überhaupt in 1973 that gave Kis the final push to depart from Marxism. The clouds were gathering already at the time of its intended publication.After the death of Lukács, the protected status of his disciples also vaned. With the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, the Hungarian communist elite also knew that it had to stop all liberalisation efforts. In 1972, Überhaupt was not allowed to be published. The authors expected this but hoped that some individual chapters would be tolerated in journals as essays. However, not a single chapter was allowed to be published which, by his own account, surprised Kis. 

In 1973, the political leadership stopped their moderation efforts and stepped up their game. In an internal disciplinary proceeding, which was later labelled the ‘Philosophers’ Trial’ Kis, Bence, Márkus, and others were fired from their researcher status at the Hungarian Academy for being “anti-Marxists.” Due to Lukács’s death and the shifting ideology of the young philosophers who were becoming increasingly critical of Marx, the party could finally get rid of a critical group of philosophers without having to write George Lukács out of canon as well. 

This is how Kis looks back on receiving the verdict in his Szabadságra ítélve: “I decided to only be present physically at the judgement. I sat through the whole event with a poker face and did not even open the envelope that was presented to me.” The envelope contained a job offer as a librarian at the Ministry of Culture, but Kis only learned this from a friend as he was not willing to engage with the officials in any way. 

By only being physically present at the trial, Kis foreshadowed the Democratic Opposition’s behaviour in the late 1970s and 1980s: they did not leave Hungary but were unwilling to play by the state’s rules or participate in its institutions. Instead, they chose to create their own institutions and public sphere. 

Kis wrote in his autobiography that he had three options after his dismissal; he could have emigrated, continued to publish politically neutral works, or decide to start working underground and write for samizdat publications. Regarding emigration, Kis realised that his analysis regarding the state of Hungarian communism – and Marxism in general – was authentic exactly because he was living in the country. Leaving Hungary was therefore not an option for him.

On publishing non-political philosophy work he wrote that “It was a seductive offer: I’m published, therefore I am. However, it would have meant that I am dependent on the grace of the authorities: when they can banish me from the public sphere and when they are willing to let me back in, what I could write and what I could not, and I would need to accept it.” 

Kis decided on the third option. He wrote that between 1973 and 1976 “we were preparing but were uncertain as to what for. In those years we realised that we want to live in Hungary and that we would do so outside of official institutions. This meant that we must create a public sphere for ourselves.” After years of preparation and an intellectual journey towards liberalism, Kis was one of the founding editors of Beszélő, a samizdat journal launched in 1981 on political, cultural, historical, and sociological affairs. 

From the early 1980s, The Democratic Opposition centred around the writing, editing, distribution, and reproduction of this and other samizdats. Beszélő also became a forum for those who were against the communist regime. The Democratic Opposition’s ideology and activities evolved and were discussed on the pages of the samizdat. Its articles were often discussed on Radio Free Europe, which according to some statistics reached an audience of 2 million people in Hungary. 

Sentenced to freedom

The Philosophers’ Trial was arguably the single most decisive event in the life of Kis, as well as the formation of the Democratic Opposition. Kis himself wrote that the trial completely changed the path of his life. In his autobiography, he states that: 

“I was pushed out to the world, and they forced me to choose. However, this made me feel free. I did not reach the point of breaking with the system myself when the system broke with me. Kádár and co shortened my political evolution. They did me a favour if you’d like. They sentenced me to freedom. I did not choose the ability to choose but I was made to choose; I could not avoid deciding who I want to be and what my place is in the world.” 

As Sentenced to Freedom is also the title of his autobiography and the book itself starts with a quote from his letter of dismissal from the Academy, it is apparent how formative an event the Philosopher’s Trial was in the life of Kis. The trial and its consequences also clearly show us a layer of what freedom meant for Kis as well as the group. 

At the time of completing Überhaupt, by accepting that the book itself was never going to be published, and only hoping for a compromise in having a chapter available in a journal, Kis was accepting the rules of the system. He was settling for a curtailed degree of the freedom of thought and freedom of speech Kádárist Hungary offered by having at least some exposure in widely read publications in exchange for limiting the full extent of what he was allowed to say. 

As a result of the trial, Kis realised that, even if they get significantly less exposure, by publishing his honest, fully-realised thoughts in underground samizdats, he could exercise his intellectual freedom much more fully than with compromises. With their samizdats, Kis and the Democratic Opposition decided to exercise their freedom of thought by not being willing to accept the censorship of the communist system and creating their own public sphere where they could think, write, and speak freely. 

Kis’ commitment to this idea is clear from Szabadságra ítélve and especially so from the bits that tell the story of one of Überhaupt’s co-authors, György Bence. For years, Bence could be considered Kis’ ideological soulmate and their careers also followed the same trajectory. After being fired from the Academy, Bence continued to cooperate with Kis in publishing philosophical essays abroad. According to Kis, in the late 1970s, Bence had a massive role in establishing the so-called second underground public sphere which allowed intellectuals to discuss and publish their works without censorship. 

From Kis’ autobiography, it is apparent that on top of their excellent working relationship, the two also had a close friendship. Thanks to this friendship, Kis is able to offer a character study on him. He describes Bence as an emotional and sensitive man on whom self-doubt took a rather significant toll. Kis gives an account of Bence expressing doubts about their ability to become leading figures in Hungary as early as 1979. 

According to Kis, partly due to these doubts in Bence and Kis’ own conviction about the way forward, they started to slowly grow apart. In 1981, Bence told Kis that he wishes to work independently on a project relating to 19th-century Hungarian political philosophy, which was a significant departure from their previous shared interests and works. Shortly after Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland to punish the figures of the emerging Solidarity movement in 1981, Bence suggested to Kis that they should cease the publication of Beszélő

In 1984, as a result of his reduced contact with Kis and the wider opposition group, not entirely clear exactly how, Bence received an offer from the authorities that if he gives up on his underground life completely, they could reintegrate him into the academic establishment to a certain extent. 

According to Kis, Bence asked for three things: that his wife (the historian Mária M. Kovács) is not prevented from applying to the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, that Bence would be allowed to receive research contracts occasionally, and that he would finally be able to defend his PhD thesis he submitted in the 1970s. The authorities agreed to Bence’s first two requests but declined the third. 

It goes without saying that we only get one side of the story from Kis’ autobiography and it is not Bence’s. What is also clear from Szabadságra ítélve is that Kis himself judges Bence quite harshly for his gradual departure from opposition life. Kis wrote:

“I was wary of judging someone who asks the authorities that oppress him to normalise his life. The life of a regime’s subject is difficult and judging is easy, that is why it is dangerous. However, Gyuri wasn’t just one of the regime’s subjects. We decided to sacrifice our lives so that we don’t live as subjects but as self-conscious citizens and show an example to others with our behaviour. I thought it would be acceptable to get tired of the opposition lifestyle and temporarily or permanently take a step back. But I thought this was something else. He gave up the moral gesture we made at the start of our careers and what we both followed so closely until then.” 

It is outside of the scope of this essay to decide if Kis’ judgement of Bence is fair or valid. However, it is clear why Kis judges his friend so harshly and unapologetically. Making a deal with the communist authorities was the exact opposite of one of the foundational philosophical pillars of what freedom meant for Kis and the Democratic Opposition as a whole.

The Philosopher’s Trial was the defining moment in Kis’ life. It was at that moment that he vowed not to make any deal with the system. He decided that to be truly free is to reject any compromise with an authoritarian system. This was the only way to be able to write and think freely, even if it meant becoming less widely read. For Kis, Bence retiring from opposition life so that he could gain funding for his research was the antithesis of the single most important principle he held in his life and perhaps the key pillar in what the Democratic Opposition meant by, and how it exercised freedom.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central European history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!