Hungary Insight

Four freedoms of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition – Part two: Ottilia Solt and economic freedom

Budapest, Hungary – In a weekly essay series, Kafkadesk discusses themes from the lives of key figures from the 1970s-1980s Hungarian Democratic Opposition. After first analysing the life and works of philosopher János Kis, we discuss in part two Ottilia Solt and her concept of poverty as the primary obstacle to an individual’s freedom.

Equal freedoms for all

After being fired from the Academy, János Kis’ break with Marxism accelerated. According to his autobiography, the first step in Kis’ ideological evolution was not an intellectual enlightenment but a moral intuition. He felt that by being fired from the Academy, his rights were violated. Hence, Kis turned towards human rights-based politics. However, he felt that if human rights were non-negotiable for him (which was the case, given his formative experience of being fired from the academy), he would likely need to break with Marxism. 

This was because, in Kis’ interpretation of Marx, the concept of human rights was considered to be a tool of bourgeois class rule. As the idea of human rights is a moral notion (and therefore could not be the subject of a compromise), Kis could not reconcile his new intuitions and his (primarily moral) grievance of being fired with being a Marxist. Soon, Kis found an ideological family that matched his intuition about the sanctity of human rights. 

The advocacy of human rights slowly but surely led Kis to human rights-based liberalism and then an economically redistributive form of liberalism in social liberalism, not least through texts by Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin, and of course John Rawls. For Kis, it was the equal moral state of every individual that did not allow for a certain degree of wealth inequality. Equality for Kis was a quintessential part of liberalism. 

As he puts it in his autobiography:

“Contrary to popular belief, liberalism was not revolutionary because it elevated freedom as a value. Freedom was valuable in the world before the existence of liberalism as well, however, the consensus was that people of different backgrounds were deemed to have been worthy of different freedoms depending on their social status. Freedom was thought to be different depending on whether you were a serf, a city-dweller, a priest, a soldier, or an aristocrat.

Freedom was a privilege. A privilege of the higher classes. The novelty in liberalism was the recognition that this hierarchy is morally indefensible; all human beings – simply because they are human beings – have the right to the same freedoms. The law can only restrict an individual’s freedom to reconcile it with the freedom of other individuals.” 

Thus, despite departing from Marxism and arriving (proudly and firmly) at liberalism, the notion of equality remained a quintessential part of his philosophy. He repeatedly remarks in his autobiography that a good liberal should engage with, learn from, and reflect on Marxist critique and writing to be able to successfully address the challenges of the modern world. This is especially striking as at the same time in the 1980s, a very different interpretation of liberalism – neoliberalism – was sweeping through the world.

But in Hungary, it was social liberalism that became the defining ideology not just for Kis but more or less for the Democratic Opposition as a whole as well. This is clear from the ‘Blue Book’, the first – economically rather redistributive – manifesto of SZDSZ and how Kis, at that point as leader of the party advocated a “socially sensitive change of regime” and strong trade unions in a prime ministerial debate before the first democratic elections in 1990.

Ottilia Solt and Kádárist Hungary’s poor

The person who perhaps most clearly epitomised this economically redistributive social liberalism was Ottilia Solt. Born in 1944, Solt was a student of one of Hungary’s most influential sociologists, István Kemény who researched, with his students, poverty in 1970s Hungary. This was in itself a political act; the word “poor” or “poverty” was not allowed to be used as the socialist system was said to have eradicated it altogether. As a result, Kemény was first banned from publishing in Hungary and then left the country. 

Solt continued Kemény’s tradition of researching and writing about the poor, which inevitably also resulted in her being banned from having anything published in Hungary. Her latter works were mostly published in the samizdat outlets of the Democratic Opposition, mostly in Beszélő, the Democratic Opposition’s main samizdat which she also co-edited. 

Due to her early death in 1997 at the age of 53, Solt did not get to publish her memoirs or write an autobiography. However, a two-volume collection of her works published after her death provides a clear picture of Solt’s philosophy, her frustrations with Hungarian socialism, and her role in the Democratic Opposition. 

For Solt, poverty was not only a symptom of economic inequality. “I’m not calling an income category poverty. Poverty is a life without perspectives, caused by the lack of inherited wealth. In such lives, people’s decisions are motivated by the eternal lack of money”, she stated in an interview in 1989. In Solt’s interpretation, poverty is the greatest limitation to an individual’s freedom. Poverty is the most fundamentally unfree position an individual can find themselves in. 

This is a recurring theme in her writings. In a 1977 study titled A hetvenes évek budapesti szegényei (The Poor People of Budapest in the 1970s), she wrote that the number one regulatory system of the poor was their daily necessities. In a 1990 study titled Föld és szegénység (Land and Poverty), she lamented how “tiny the freedom of the individual and the family has become” in joint leases (a common practice under Kádárist Hungary when two families lived in the same, often quite small, flat) and in worker’s hostels. 

But she articulated this sentiment most clearly in 1989 in her review (titled Szegény az, akinek nincs, or A poor person is someone who does not have anything) of another legendary Hungarian sociologist, Zsuzsa Ferge’s work Van-e negyedik út? (Is there a fourth way?): “A poor person is someone who does not have anything, while others do. A poor person is forced to act by need, while others have a free choice.” 

Even after the fall of communism, Solt was consistently using the word “poverty” or “poor” because she insisted that it is the most easily understood term for the average Hungarian. Solt wrote in the same review that“academia must be understandable for the people it talks about.” This is why she insisted on not using other terms, such as “low-income individuals.”

Part of Solt’s frustrations with socialism, and especially with the Hungarian version of socialism, was that it did not remedy the economic situation of the poor. In Solt’s interpretation, it in fact often made it worse.

In an essay titled Szegények pedig nincsenek! (There is no such thing as poor people, published in 1985, then revised and republished in 1989 both times as a samizdat), Solt argued that the socialist land reform in the 1940s, which made life significantly easier for a number of peasants missed two social groups: the Roma, who were almost completely neglected by the land reforms, and a large section of domestic servants and employed farm labourers who did not receive any of the redistributed lands which were supposed to lift them out of poverty. 

In the essay, she claimed that the vast majority of those living in poverty in Kádárist Hungary were the descendants of these two groups. She often said that the vast majority of poor people in Hungary were Roma. In a 1984 interview for Beszélő, the founders of SZETA, a poverty-relief charitable organisation which Solt helped to create, unanimously articulated that they thought anti-Roma racism was the reason why there was so little solidarity towards the poor within Hungarian society and a lack of willingness to address poverty both by the general population and by the government. 

Another feature of Hungarian socialism that disadvantaged the poor according to Solt was the policy of full employment. This policy goal primarily affected the working conditions of the poor. Being unemployed was a criminal offence. In her 1985 article titled Foglalkoztatáspolitikai garanciák (Employment policy guarantees), Solt argued that by being forced to work no matter the conditions, employers of low-skilled labour forces were unmotivated to increase their wages or working conditions as they knew that these individuals were de-facto forced to remain in their jobs however bad they were. 

A form of giving jobs to the unemployed was the “community service” jobs (since reintroduced as one of the flagship policies of the Orbán regime). These jobs were offered by local councils and were subsidised by the state and largely involved menial tasks such as lawn mowing or weeding under the surveillance of the authorities. In her 1988 piece titled Vadásztörténetek (Hunting Stories), Solt argued that while the institution of community service jobs did improve the tidiness of villages to some extent, it was completely unable to serve the interests of the unemployed themselves.  

She wrote that those employed under community service, “in exchange for an extremely low salary, are not only subjected to the miseries of the worst type of jobs and hence have less chance of finding work on the actual labour market. But they also have to conduct this work under the same police surveillance which makes their private lives a misery in the first place.”

The police’s harassment of the poor was an important aspect of Solt’s opposition to Hungarian socialism. As the welfare model of Kádárism was starting to show signs of cracks, the precarious situation of those living in extreme poverty was made even worse in 1985 when the enforcement of the anti-unemployment law became stricter. 

Beforehand, in practice (even if not in theory), local workers could simply not turn up to or refuse jobs that they felt were underpaying them. Now, employers could report them to the police, hence they were even more strictly obligated to accept the job offers while the employers were even less incentivised to raise their pay or improve their working conditions.

Budapest poor and rural poor

In Foglalkoztatáspolitikai garanciák, Solt wrote the following:

“Even the mere existence of the new “forced labour legislation” is going to guarantee the presence of exploitable labour force. Alongside having to pay low wages thanks to forced employment, it will be a good business for employers to pocket government subsidies for ‘creating jobs’. If there are allocation problems, those could be resolved by applying the forced labour legislation. […] I’m sure many will approve of this.

After all, the Roma in our reports are hardly angels. They had been living in dark poverty and had been humiliated forever in their miserable houses which they had been sharing with several children and disabled family members even before the new legislation. But the poverty and hopeless vulnerability they are being pushed to by the ‘authorities responsible for employment policy’ can only be acknowledged (or not acknowledged to be precise) with total cynicism or complete social blindness.” 

The strict enforcement of the rule often resulted in violent scenes in which the Kádárist regime demonstrated that even soft autocracies are still autocracies. In Vadásztörténetek, Solt reported on a raid on a local community in Ladány near the industrial city of Ózd. She wrote that police officers arrived in minivans, confiscated the dogs of the local community and took unemployed individuals for questioning. While most them were released, at least ten of them were arrested for thirty or sixty days. Such raids were a weekly occurrence in Ladány.

As a Budapest-based dissident who travelled the country for her sociological work, Solt realised that the poor are disadvantaged due to their economic circumstances but are also more harassed by state authorities than their middle-class Budapest peers. To an extent, this increased state pressure affected all classes living outside Budapest, not just the poor. In Vadásztörténetek, Solt stated that while she heard no instance of any of the Budapest-based Beszélő readers being harassed by the police simply for visiting their samizdat shop or purchasing their publications, this happened occasionally to readers outside the capital.

In Solt’s mind, the freedom of the poor under Kádárism was not only limited by their precarious economic situation but also by increased pressure from the state. Thus, for Solt, contrary to popular interpretations, the poor were not the biggest beneficiaries of Kádárism but its greatest victims. In Szegények pedig nincsenek!, she wrote that “the greatest beneficiaries of Kádárism are undoubtedly the civil servants/clerks and the intelligentsia. They live disproportionately better than all other classes (definitely comparatively to their efforts) and they have disproportionately more freedoms.”

She added:

“When analysing the political nature of Kádárist rule, ‘consensus’ is the central word. We have mentioned it so often that it has become its principle of legitimacy. […] No one denies that the basis of this consensus was the undeniably better living standards which were the result of the revolution of 1956.  […] Then the ruling classes realised that if they strive for stability they need to make concessions for the wider society as well. […] However, what’s noticed less often is how the new consensus completely pushed down the parts of the old poverty classes that, since 1945, have been unable to integrate into the working classes or the intelligentsia.” 

The entire point of Kádárism was that individuals would give up on some of their personal freedoms – like the freedom to organise or publish or read cultural materials freely – in exchange for improved living standards. One of the most crucial sentiments in Solt’s body of work is that, for her, the poor were the greatest losers of Kádárism.

They were not only unable to enjoy some personal freedoms, which were also taken away from everyone in Kádár’s Hungary (although based on her accounts, they even had fewer freedoms than their Budapest middle-class counterparts). They also did not receive any of the material welfare like the rest of society in exchange for being unable to exercise the said freedoms. 

The poor under János Kádár were not part of any deal and have fallen out completely from the consideration of both the ruling elite as well as large parts of the wider society that enjoyed the perks of Kádárism. Solt’s poor were not at the bottom of Kádár-era society. They existed underneath it.

Tackling poverty on the ground

Solt did not only write about the dire situation of the poor but also actively tried to help them. She was one of the founders and a key figure of the Democratic Opposition’s first institution, SZETA (Szegényeket Támogató Alap – Fund in Support of the Poor). 

SZETA was founded in 1979. In the aforementioned interview in Beszélő commemorating the fifth anniversary of the organisation’s foundation, Solt stated that Kemény’s students learnt from him that they should not only write about and interview the poor for their research but also help them if they can. This was the spirit in which SZETA was founded. As they never asked permission from the state, it was considered an illegal organisation and some of their activities, including a charity concert, were shut down by the authorities. 

According to the interview, SZETA collected money and its decision-making committee decided which specific causes they would donate it to. SZETA focused on money because Solt thought that’s what the poor needed, first and foremost, and that the lack of it is the root of all their problems. 

As the founders highlighted in the interview, SZETA was not the only organisation to collect money for the poor. Most notably churches were quite active in that area (Gábor Iványi, a methodist pastor himself was a prominent figure of both the Democratic Opposition and SZETA). 

The main difference, however, between the humanitarian effort of church groups and SZETA was that while the churches tended to collect money quietly and without trying to gain too much attention, SZETA tried to be as visible with their activities as possible in order to draw attention to poverty in the country, which the state apparatus did not want to address and non-samizdat papers were silent about. 

As one of the SZETA founders, András Nagy put it in the interview: “We wanted to make sure that the question of Hungarian poverty gets attention. We wanted to raise awareness to the fact that despite the official position of the government, traditional poverty still exists in Hungary. It still affects masses of people and something must happen because the state’s social policy is not going to offer any solution to it.”

The protection of “underclasses and the creation of “citizens”

One question remains. Given Solt’s social sensitivity, her sense of mission to help the poor, and her advocacy of economic redistribution, why did she identify as a liberal and why did the Democratic Opposition create a liberal party once they were allowed to formally organise? Why couldn’t Solt embrace Marxism, socialism, or a form of social democracy? 

A possible answer could be that given how important the role the idea of the individual and their freedom played in her conceptualisation of poverty, Solt found a more natural home in liberalism where the concepts of individual freedom features more prominently than in the more communitarian social democratic traditions. 

There is another, perhaps more obvious answer: she lived in a socialist system, saw its ills, and wanted to distance herself from all its possible versions. But this couldn’t be the main reason. After all, there were plenty of socialists or Marxists who criticised and criticise existing socialist systems on a socialist or Marxist basis. 

Solt herself had a more fundamental and well-thought-through reasoning for why she and the wider circle of the Democratic Opposition considered themselves liberals. Her short 1990 essay Miért nem vagyok szociáldemokrata? (‘Why I’m not a social democrat’), presents an ambivalent relationship between social democracy and the Democratic Opposition.

She admits that the goals of the members of the Democratic Opposition align with social democratic traditions, writing that “the ideological-philosophical past of most of us, the present state of Hungarian society and politics, and the strategic concept of changing the system through peaceful means draw the aims of social democracy on the horizon.” 

Yet, despite this, Solt clearly considered herself and the Democratic Opposition a liberal movement. She argued as follows: the socialist state created several organisations that claimed to advocate the interest of different groups such as SZOT (the national council of trade unions) or Women’s Alliance (a group formally supposed to advocate the interests of women). 

However, as these organisations were heavily tied to and were dependent on the state and the ruling elites, they were completely toothless in their ability to represent the interest of any group when it came to opposition with those in power. As such, she said that “it is virtually impossible for SZOT or the Women’s Alliance to fill the void their establishment was supposed to fill: an authentic interest group.” 

This concerned Solt because she thought that without strong interest groups, the goals of social democracy (which Solt and the Democratic Opposition agreed with) are unattainable. As she put it:

“There is no social democracy without strong interest groups – I think that is clear. Historically, trade unions and independent interest groups not only have to precede the formation of social democracy, but they also have to be maintained during the process. […] Today, there is no meaningful interest representation in Hungary”.

Solt’s text argues that authentic interest representation needs to come from the grass-roots and it has to be self-sufficient, otherwise it will both be unable to fight effectively against the state and will easily crumble in the long run if it is challenged. Solt added that while Kádárist society tried to prevent all forms of self-organisation within society, it was especially keen to do so in the case of the working class. 

The system looked the other way and in fact sometimes covertly encouraged working-class individuals to try individual coping mechanisms for the betterment of their lives by participating in the second unofficial economy (Solt refers to “háztájizás”, a practice allowing workers to have a small garden and sell their products in small quantity). 

As individuals were encouraged to find their own escape routes and compromises with the system, the emergence of a working class that effectively advocated for its own interest collectively was made impossible. The workers who were unable to utilise these escape routes were living in the dire poverty she wrote so often and so passionately about. 

Therefore, according to Solt, there were no working classes present in Hungary in the sense that it was impossible to live off wages exclusively in traditional working-class professions. Those who did did so by participating in the second economy on the side. Those who did not participate in the informal economy and only received their wages from their profession were unable to live off them and therefore belonged to the underclass, thus could not organise in the same way as the traditional working classes. 

For Solt, the number one political goal after the fall of communism was to encourage political self-organisation – in the long run, the only way to protect the interests of the poor – and find alliances with voters who are more likely to be partners in this. She argued that creating self-conscious individuals (in Solt’s words, “citizens”) was quintessential to achieve the goals both social democrats and the (by then self-proclaimed liberal) Democratic Opposition advocated: 

“If we want to create a party that represents the interests of the workers, we must reflect on the actual workings of society. We must find answers to real situations, not theoretical ones. We are not yet able to create a party that could represent the workers. We will have more success if we turn to the more entrepreneurial side of our society. Liberal values that appeal to an independent citizen are more fitting to express these sentiments. The existence of the citizen (who to this day is still not emancipated in Hungary) is an undeniable bedrock of any type of a modern political system. 

The creation of citizens cannot be spared. The extension of the dignity and safety of a self-conscious citizen (and what else is the goal of social democracy?) to others can only be the following step. We may not have to wait a hundred years for this, but how long it will take depends on us. Preferably in dialogue with social democrats, I want the emancipation of the workers (who currently are the poor underneath the Hungarian society) to happen with as little delay as possible.” 

In János Kis’ 2014 interpretation of Solt’s text, Solt was a liberal who wanted to build an electoral coalition composed of the intelligentsia and the “underclasses.” This, he wrote, was similar to the efforts of the Democratic Party in the United States in the late 1960s and 70s at the height of the civil rights movement, an indication of how influential the spirit of 1968 was for the Democratic Opposition.

Ottilia Solt was active in the Democratic Opposition because she found that the socialist regime ignored and sometimes actively created the conditions that prevented people from escaping poverty. She repeatedly argued that poverty, the main focus of her research and essays, was the greatest constraint on an individual’s freedom. Solt was first a sociologist, then a dissident, and, for a brief period an MP.

In all stages of her life, she fought for a world where everyone could be free of economic constraints.

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!

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