In his novel The Melancholy of Resistance, the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai describes a village sunk into its own timeless traditions. The farmers scrape at the fields. The men drink at the bar. Before the dreamer Valuska, a kind of holy fool and the moral center of the book, delivers the morning papers, he corrals the men at the bar to create a lurching performance of the orbits of the solar system (the remarkable opening scene in the movie version titled The Werckmeister Harmonies). Thus does the town circle round and round in its off-kilter way.
But change comes to this backwater, and when it does, it transforms the town with the rapidity and thoroughness of a fire. Inspired somehow by a mysterious circus, with its enormous whale and impresario prince, a crowd marches through the streets, leaving destruction and even death in its wake. Then the army arrives to restore order. Certain individuals see opportunity in this chaos, and thus does a new political order arise out of the mud.
Janos David is a sociologist who has spent his professional life studying change. He experienced the Hungarian uprising of 1956 firsthand and much later helped to produce documentaries about it. He helped found a trade union and then assisted workers to adjust to the new economic realities after 1989.
Through it all, he has tried to identify and uphold the public good. But the Hungary that has emerged from the changes of 1989 seems to resemble nothing other than Krasznahorkai’s backwater. “During the last 20 years, nobody really understood the idea of the public good,” he told me in an interview in May 2013 in his home in Budapest. “The problem is that during those 20 years in every case I tried to determine the public good, and I realized that the people around me nearly never understood what it meant. Instead, everyone tried to further their own private interest. That is why it was so difficult for this political change to happen. These local societies could not really find their own strategic way. The people had no compass. They were wandering in a very muddy political, social, and economic swamp, and they couldn’t create something under these conditions. That’s why those who are very professional in gaining power and achieving their personal goals were successful. They understood what a paradise these muddy circumstances were for the acquisition of power.”
After the changes of 1989, David worked to bring the techniques of participatory planning to Hungary as part of a larger effort of community and regional development. “If we had an area where industry collapsed, we had to make an assessment of the potential — the human potential, the knowledge, the buildings, the economic infrastructure, the financial infrastructure, everything,” he told me. “We had to determine whether these systems were working or not. I brought in many experts from Oxford where I’d spent months learning these techniques. The main point was to bring people together to exploit their ideas and find a common strategy. Later on I was in the United States and I learned ‘collective problem-solving.’ It’s the same system. In Europe we call it participatory planning.”
He’s not entirely certain of how much has changed as a result of such techniques. It may have been much like corralling people in a bar to reenact the motions of the heavens. But he forges on. “I am a very practical person in wanting to change things, in perceiving the social surroundings and the actors and trying to find out what is acceptable for them,” he concluded. “But I was naive. Now we are a democracy. We have the tools to build a new society on mainly liberal and social ideas. But we have to face this mud.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was happy, really happy. I saw that everything would change. Personally, I thought that this would be my time — because I was very interested in the changing politics. I’d just come back from Oxford where I’d learned change management and conflict resolution tools. I saw that this was my time because I expected that many conflicts would arise.
I’m interested in how you became involved in sociology and also in politics.
That’s too long a story! I don’t want to give a long explanation. The change came in 1968, in August, the end of the Prague Spring. I was only 24 or so at the time. That’s when we understood that this had nothing to do with socialism. The Czech revolution showed that socialism with a human face couldn’t work. This was not really a surprise. Nobody thought that a real change could happen.
After that, during my university years I started to become involved in sociology. When I finished, I met a fantastic sociologist who had spent three or four years in jail after 1956. We learned in this very personal way many things about the nature of the regime. We started addressing different social questions — poverty, Gypsies, workers. I was really involved in these three areas. We began to understand the difference between what the regime was saying and the reality.
What do you remember from the 1956 uprising?
I was nine years old. I was here in Budapest. I remember many small things. We were living here on the Buda side, in between the Gellert Hill and the Castle Hill. I remember that on the night of October 22 my father came home from the technical university and from the first gatherings of the Budapest intellectuals who wrote their list of demands. My mother didn’t suspect anything on 22nd. But on the 23rd, the real first day of the revolution, she became very upset because my brother who is 6 years old than me didn’t come home. During the night, in more than two or three places, there was some fighting. After October 30, right after the Imre Nagy government was sworn in and they prevented the revolutionaries from using their guns, one of our neighbors took me on a walk around the city. There were many dead people on the street, barricades, bombed buildings. Our neighborhood after November 4 was the local center of the Russian troops. My brother wrote in Russian on a wall, “Russians Go Home” or something like that.
The Russians bombed the Castle area because the revolutionaries were there, so we had to go into the basement. Our building was a house with eight flats. Only one person had changed since 1945, the end of World War. We were told to go to the basement. And everybody went to the same place in the basement where they’d spent many months during World War II. Our nearest neighbor went to her own corner where there was a box that she opened. Inside was fresh flour, salt, sugar, dried pasta, and beans. Ever since 1945, she had changed the contents of the box every few months. I can’t forget that.
When you did the documentary about 1956, what were the most surprising things that you learned?
Everything. What did I tell you at the time?
Just that you were doing a documentary about peasants and then you switched.
Not peasants, but workers. We did four or five documentary films starting in 1988 that we finished in 1990. The first film was about a massacre that took place in Salgótarján on December 8, 1956. There is a debate on how many victims there were. According to me, 132. But the historians say 43. It’s a very important difference, but the debate is not so important. The residents were suspicious about what we really wanted. It took a long time to create trust. On this basis of trust, we found out what really happened during the 10-12 days of the revolution, and after the revolution: the retribution. We had to determine what had happened from the point when the revolution finished and when we made the film. Whether the people spent a couple years in the jail or several months in an internment camp, they were still controlled more than 30 years later. Many times, they were woken up during the night just for the authorities to let them know that they were being watched. They found jobs only if the local Party political center gave permission to the state-owned enterprise to hire them. I came to understand how they lived during these decades under surveillance. I learned of many tragedies.
Did the documentaries have an impact on the revolutionaries and on society?
At that time, in 1990, 1991, 1992, there were a lot of documentaries that revealed the historical reality. Our documentary was one of many
You went back to doing documentaries about workers.
Nobody wanted to give us money to do that. We wanted to do it. My partner was a real documentary director interested in everyday things. He started to do films about peasants who tried to get back their land, about workers kicked out of their jobs, about politicians replaced by new politicians. He felt that his task was to document everything.
Did you do any more movies after that?
No. I’m a sociologist. At that time my political activity was taken up with the creation of a new union. I spent two or three years on that as an activist. Mainly I was teaching at the university. Then I left that political activity to do different work. I started dealing with local economy and community development. And two years ago I again started to help start a new union and now a new party.
In 1990, you were working with the union on ways to make it easier for workers during the economic transition. You came back from England with several ideas to do economic development at a community level. What happened with those ideas?
I had been working as a lecturer at the university since 1978. At the beginning of 1993, I started with a new program, named change management. Within that program I taught local economic and employment development At the same time, we created a small consulting enterprise with my colleagues and students to run development projects, mainly at the level of local government.
Can you give examples of the projects?
There were many projects. The first period was during the transition years when everything that was originally state-owned was privatized. It meant that many people lost their jobs. New owners had to start again, whether they were Hungarian or multinational. For people in rural areas, there was a program to get back their lands. They started to think about what to do with the land. They’d forgotten what their fathers and grandfathers knew. They’d never learned how to be a farmer. So, they had to face this. In 1990 nobody could have imagined that people would be buying horses to plow the land! It was very primitive.
If we had an area where industry collapsed, we had to make an assessment of the potential — the human potential, the knowledge, the buildings, the economic infrastructure, the financial infrastructure, everything. We had to determine whether these systems were working or not. I brought in many experts from Oxford where I’d spent months learning these techniques. The main point was to bring people together to exploit their ideas and find a common strategy. Later on I was in the United States and I learned “collective problem-solving.” It’s the same system. In Europe we call it participatory planning.
Did it produce positive results?
Sometimes I feel that we only made a very small contribution. But I can’t measure what changed in people’s minds.
Did anything change on the ground?
Yes, we tried to be very practical. If you let me jump a bit ahead, what I have done from 1990 until 2010 when Viktor Orban returned to office, was regional development. During the last 20 years, nobody really understood the idea of the public good. This was not really shocking. You ask me if I had any results from my work. The problem is that during those 20 years in every case I tried to determine the public good, and I realized that the people around me nearly never understood what it meant. Instead, everyone tried to further their own private interest. That is why it was so difficult for this political change to happen. These local societies could not really find their own strategic way. The people had no compass. They were wandering in a very muddy political, social, and economic swamp, and they couldn’t create something under these conditions. That’s why those who are very professional in gaining power and achieving their personal goals were successful. They understood what a paradise these muddy circumstances were for the acquisition of power.
In 2010, I decided that I, alone, could do nothing. But I had a moral duty to do what I could, even if there was no or very minimal possibility for success. That’s what I’m doing now. We started a union and created the political party, Come Together 2014. I’m working for them as an activist from morning to night.
How is the new union different from the other unions?
The other unions don’t like us – that’s the difference! It’s a long story. We are at the same point as in 1990, but it’s worse because we lost our belief that it’s possible to do something. We organized demonstrations against the government, with thousands of people. But after months and months, many people lost their belief. They didn’t understand that it takes time. They don’t understand that those who have the power will not just put up their hands and surrender. It’s not a revolutionary situation. It needs some step-by-step work. We might take a slice from the power structure, but the structure remained stable. The people didn’t learn over the decades how to do real organizing. If they don’t have immediate success, they start to fight one another and blame each other for the failures.
How many members are there in Solidaritasz?
Between 1,000 and 2,000.
Do they come from particular workplaces?
It’s not a real trade union. It’s a political movement within the framework of a union because that’s what was legally possible.
Tell me about the party. What’s the difference between the new party and the other parties?
We started to form this party last October. It was formally established March 9.
It’s very new.
It’s a coalition of different organizations. It’s liberal with some social democratic features.
You said that we are in a worse position today because people don’t have hope. What do you think we can do to provide people with hope?
The people lost their belief in politics. This part of Europe has a very feudalistic and paternalistic culture. They like to have a leader. They learned during the last 100 years to depend on the leader. It’s a natural instinct. And the leaders, from the smallest to the biggest, like to have people hanging on them. That’s the Eastern European culture. It’s awful. Coming back to your question, I think to have hope means to have freedom. But in their understanding, to have hope is to get more and more from the leaders. It’s nearly impossible to make them understand anything different.
A lot of people talk about what they think Roma should do — go to school, dress better. What do you think non-Roma should do to improve the relationship between Roma and non-Roma?
You’re asking about everyday people or politicians?
Either, or both.
I see a lot of American films. And you see many teenagers but also many adults in these films say to each other, “You are a loser.” It means that there’s no solidarity between people. To be a loser means that you are responsible for yourself. You’re saying, basically, “Me, I have nothing to do with it because you are the loser.”
I learned a lot during the 1970s and 1980s about how Gypsies were integrated into the labor market, and how they followed the non-Roma way of behavior and consumer culture. But in 1990, they were the first to lose their jobs. About 25 percent of the Roma who were of working age were employed. They could no longer behave in the same way. Not only the Roma lost their jobs, of course. And today these non-Roma are also “losers.” But the Roma have an additional handicap. You can see that they are darker.
The second habit of people here in this country is to find the guilty party. If you have problems, you find who is responsible for it. And that’s the Roma. They blame the Roma. It’s a stereotype.
Two weeks ago, I was in Borsod in a Roma settlement. Most of them have no jobs. I asked somebody, “How do you live?”
“We are working,” he said.
“How can you work if you have no job?”
They go every morning to get wood in the forest — to steal wood in the forest. Then they get their sack and got to the nearest city to look through the garbage and take out whatever is useful. Then they go back and sell it. Like in India! Like in India a couple of decades ago. So, what can we do? It has to be a 20-30 year program. It has to be done without prejudice. We have to encourage the new generation to take part in the educational process and not let them drop out. Then the local and regional development can create enterprises and jobs, and the cultural attitude will change if the Roma are not forced to pick through garbage. The people will lose their prejudices if they see this happening. But the danger is enormous that the public will say, “Don’t spend my money on this.” If the politicians don’t assume the responsibility to explain that this type of gap within society is unacceptable, it will be a tragedy.
Are you a different person today than in 1990?
Yes, I was naive.
In what way?
A person from San Francisco came here around September or October 1990. He told me that he and many American foundations never even knew where Hungary or Bosnia was located. They thought they were just somewhere “over there.” But after 1989, they thought that some conflicts would arise in this region. And that’s why he came here. We established a conflict resolution center. Then we went to the United States and took part in different trainings on conflict management and collective problem solving. I had many ideas about how people could work together, cooperate. It was 1991, and we took part in many different trainings and conversations. Many people came together and brought their ideas, and it was interesting. I liked that. It was like a compass.
It gave you some direction.
Yes, and so did the methodology. I am a very practical person in wanting to change things, in perceiving the social surroundings and the actors and trying to find out what is acceptable for them. But I was naive. Now we are a democracy. We have the tools to build a new society on mainly liberal and social ideas. But we have to face this mud.
The mud of politics.
Yes, the swamp.
It is still a swamp. But you are not naive any more.
It is necessary to have some naiveté. Because if I do not, I would say to you, “What’s the point in speaking?”
You’d just sit there.
I finish with three quantitative questions. When you think back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life.
Looking into the future, the next 2 or 3 years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Hungary, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I have no answer for that. I try to be an actor. To be that, it’s necessary to believe. I know in the back of my head that the reality is very limited. But in the front of my head, I still believe.
Gramsci said that you have to approach the world with optimism of the spirit and pessimism of the mind.
Yes, something like that.
Budapest, May 9, 2013
A sociologist who focuses on industrial history, Janos David has been involved in the foundation of the independent trade union FSZDL. He has also worked on the several film projects. We began by talking about the latter.
David works with a film director who previously did a series of films about Hungarian peasants. In the middle of 1988, David and this director came up with a plan to describe the major problems concerning Hungarian workers. The political changes came faster than they expected, however, and their film plans changed. They instead produced a film about the 1956 revolution that was shown last October on the anniversary of the uprising. In addition they have prepared a documentary of roughly 5-6 hours length about the effect of the uprising on an industrial town for the National Video Archive. With these side projects completed, he hopes that they will return to the original plan.
At the union, David works as the director of the Workers Defence Committee. The WDC performs three major functions: providing legal advice to workers trying to create independent unions; assisting in collective bargaining; aiding workers in the privatization process. The WDC summarizes its activities, gives these reports to the second level of experts who consult with the government. There are 8-10 people working on the WDC.
In his most recent activity for the WDC, he went to the southern part of Hungary to assist a strike in a stone quarry. 9 such quarries belonged to a centralized operation but only 2 were profitable, thus subsidizing the other seven. Workers at one of the profitable quarries decided to strike: not for higher wages, but for independence from the other operations. David advised these particular miners on their strike and expects them to be successful. He will follow up on these activities however by going to workers in the unprofitable enterprises in order to present them with some options in view of impending economic problems.
When we talked, David had just returned from three months at Oxford. There he talked with institutions about the possibility of setting up a new program in Hungary that could compensate the social costs of economic transformation. He worries that regions will be affected differently by the transition and suggests that economic programs be geared to the particular area. He would like to set up, in essence, various community development organizations that would analyze the market potential for a particular region (marketable products, industries, resources, workforce and so on), begin to create market connections (between producers and distributors for instance or between domestic and foreign capital), and then force the government to institute the new laws necessary to facilitate economic growth in the region (preferential loans, tax abatements for investment and so on). The members of the community (as both producers, investors and consumers) would be encouraged to participate in this process of finding solutions to their own problems. His visit to Britain convinced him that the Thatcher model was not helpful since it was based entirely on individual solutions, involved bank loans to the most profitable and secure enterprises, and undercut the authority of local councils by setting up parallel organizations.
The new government has declared that the Enterprise Councils in each of the enterprises must decide on retaining old managers or identifying new ones. The government is determined to break the old power structures even if means bringing in inexperienced managers. David disagrees with the strategy: many of the old managers, regardless of their party affiliation, have knowledge of a certain kind of operation. To kick them out is to start again from zero. The government is then faced with a paradox: it must put time and energy and money into developing a transitional system that, by definition, will not last very long.
One of the keys to this operation is privatization and how it is handled. David favors Marton Tardos’ proposal (Tardos is a well-known reform economist): making local councils the new owners of enterprises. These councils, in consultation with investors, workers and the community, can then decide how to deal with the particular firms on a case-by-case basis. Through such a process, David hopes that a “third way” can be found.
Finally, we talked a little about his university job. He teaches methodology in the Sociology Department as well as history of the industrial working class. He hopes to teach a course soon on industrial relations. I asked whether the classic divide between workers and intellectuals in Hungary is becoming overcome. His experience in England, for instance, taught him that trade unionists are very suspicious of academics. In Hungary, a rather paternalistic country, the workers tend to listen to what trade unionists or academics have to say, even if the advice is not very good. This despite David’s experience that workers are very clever, very brave and know twice as much information about their own situation than their intellectual advisors.