Since there is a debate going on about the art of the translator, I am happy to publish a translation by George Szirtes, Hungarian-born British poet, writer, and translator. He has translated many important Hungarian literary works into English, including such classics as the nineteenth-century verse play of Imre Madách, The Tragedy of Man, and novels of Gyula Krúdy, Ferenc Karinthy, and Sándor Márai. His last translation, Satantango [Sátántangó in Hungarian] by László Krasznahorkai, received the Best Translated Book Award in 2013.
So, enjoy both the translation and the thoughts of Gáspár Miklós Tamás or, as he signs his publications in English, G. M. Tamás. The interview took place on Egyenes beszéd [Straight talk] on the television station ATV on July 28. The original interview in Hungarian can be seen here. This dramatic interview should help foreign observers realize the seriousness of the situation in Hungary.
Only today two important editorials were published. The New York Times calls on Jean-Claude Juncker to act more forcefully because otherwise “the commission would diminish its credibility.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that the “West’s victory in the Cold War led to a complacency that the liberal idea was triumphant–that it was ‘the end of history,’ in the fashionable phrase of the day…. Western Europe needs to set a better example of what freedom can achieve by reviving economic growth, and the American President who ostensibly still leads the free world ought to break his pattern and speak up on behalf of the liberal idea.”
I’m grateful to George Szirtes for allowing me to publish his transcription and translation. The text originally appeared on his blog.
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GOODBYE TO DEMOCRACY
‘On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy.’
[My transcript is very close but here and there I have cut a passage for brevity or shaped a phrase in what I believe is a faithful fashion. In it TGM [TGM here since Hungarian puts the surname first] argues this is the beginning of a very dark chapter in Hungarian history.
I am somewhat amazed that the UK press hasn’t picked up more on the Orbán speech. It is, after all, quite something to declare the end of liberal democracy and to suggest that the prime minister should not be answerable to other state checks and balances. GSz]
Interviewer recounts views of other parties on Viktor Orbán’s speech then turns to Gáspár Tamás Miklós. She asks if there are any points in Orbán’s speech that the opposition and the press have left undiscussed.
TGM replies that this is a speech of extraordinary importance. He credits Orbán with being a highly intelligent man, a significant historical figure and a charismatic politician, one whose place is assured in Hungarian history. This, he claims, is the proclamation of a new political system, the seeds of which had already been sown. The speech was clear and simple to summarise.
TGM counts on his fingers and summarises.
1. He is building an illiberal state. This is demonstrated by his rewriting of the constitution and by his ending of the separation of powers. He joked about this saying that if there were any attempt to impeach or obstruct him that would mean he wasn’t the leader of the country. In other words he knows what the game is, as do I.
2. His stated his doubts about democracy
3. He announced that the concept of human rights is out of date. That human rights are finished
4. He declared the country must abandon any notion of social support (or welfare state)
5. He declared that his preferred state models were Singapore, Russia, Turkey and China.
6. He declared that all NGOs working in the cultural or social sphere were foreign agents, traitors paid by alien powers
Interviewer asks which of these six points was new.
TGM`: Every one of them.
Interviewer doubts that but TGM insists that they are completely new. Was it not just a matter of actually articulating them in a new way? asks the interviewer. TGM repeats that it was utterly new, in every respect
TGM: Yes there was this kind breast-beating before but that’s not important.
He goes on to Orbán’s idea of the state founded on work, the ‘work state’, the ‘illiberal state’ the ‘populist state’ the ‘national state’ etc.
TGM: This is a complete break with the post-1945 consensus as espoused by what we call the free world, not only with 1945 but with the less-free post-1989 political, social and moral consensus. Its abandonment of social responsibility represents a break with the ideas of freedom, and equality. What does a ‘work-based state mean? It means a non-social state, a non-welfare state, a state that offers no support or aid – it is a case of arbeit macht frei isn’t it? It means that work is what people do not because they want to but because they have to so that capitalists may prosper, the kind of work the unemployed would be forced to do against which, in a free country, there would be mass demonstrations….
Interviewer returns to her earlier question. ‘But what is new in all this?’ Again TGM replies: everything. The question is what is to come?
TGM: So what is to come? What is new is that this has become a political programme to be enacted by the state. On Saturday Hungary officially, ceremonially, openly, publicly, said goodbye to democracy. The prime minister, the autocratic leader of the country, has declared that he is opposed to civil society. Have you noticed we no longer have a governing party by the way? When was the last time we heard anything of Fidesz as a factor, a genuine player? – all we have recently been hearing is a state apparatus in which not a shred of democratic process remains and when we see the Secretary for Defence using a violent thug [a named army officer from Hungarian history] as a role model for new army recruits we may be certain what kind of violent, thuggish, and repressive state is being promised to us… a state that, since the prime minister’s speech was given in Romania, believes in provocation, [a speech] that did in fact elicit a storm of protest in the Romanian press and many declared that they had had quite enough of Hungary.
So here we have, in this truly terrifying speech, given to his friends and a highly enthusiastic audience, one of the darkest moments in Hungarian history, a moment of darkness provided by Viktor Orbán. Meanwhile everyone goes, ‘oh dear, there he goes again, isn’t that just the kind of thing he tends to say ‘ But that’s not what is happening here. It is time to take Viktor Orbán seriously so that we can take up arms against him and save Hungary. I don’t despise him, I don’t look down to him. What we have here is an almost fully achieved dictatorship.
In any dictatorship the person of the dictator is important. Viktor Orbán is not going to let power slip from his hands now. All dictatorships depend on the dictator so now we have to concern ourselves with the kind of person Orbán is.
He told us that he will not be removed by elections. [That means] that those who are against him must be prepared for the grimmest struggle. Either that or he remains in office as long as his health permits, directing the affairs of the country by his own authority, while the country descends ever further into darkness in every possible respect in economic, political, cultural, social, or moral terms until we become a waste land, a wreck, a terrible place, a black hole in the map of Europe, a place more backward and more tyrannous than any of our Eastern European neighbours, and we will have to start envying the Bulgarians and Macedonians who will be in a far better condition, far freer, more cultured.
Interviewer asks what happens if Orbán refuses to be voted out through normal elections.
TGM: Blood and chaos. That’s the way it usually goes when elections don’t work. It’s what happens when people’s social plight becomes ever more desperate. Our social circumstances are bound to worsen and there will be people desperate and violent enough to bring down the country in the process.
We really can’t take this seriously enough. What was said in that speech is highly dangerous.
Interviewer asks whether people are in the mood to rise in defence of such high ideals.
TGM: Not at all, not at the moment. This is a browbeaten society that has utterly bought into [the Orbán persona?]. But it won’t always be so. Nothing lasts for ever. At the moment there is no ideology to confront this dark chauvinism, this cult of the state, this cult of force, full of anti-democratic sentiment.
Interviewer: Why isn’t there?
TGM: We are exhausted. We Hungarians are too tired to argue. You can’t expect people to sacrifice themselves without a hope of success. People are resigned. Like it or not, they accept they can’t change it.
Interviewer: So what hope is there?
TGM: [Thinks] The one hope lies in continuing to uphold the ideals of freedom and equality as long as we can. The hope is that, despite everything, we don’t give up on the ideals of 1918, 1945 and 1989. Those [ideals] belong to us. No one can take them from us. We might have to prepare for a long and very bad period. I myself might not live to see the end of it. Who knows? The fact remains that if we wish to live a moral life and to protect the culture of freedom we have to maintain a cool but obstinate resistance and to repeat our own commonplaces.
Interviewer: How can you maintain these high ideals when the prime minister offers hard facts? When he takes banks back into Hungarian control? When he forces banks to pay back what they owe. Has anyone ever made a bank pay us? So he doesn’t go on about ideals, about constitutional details.
TGM: I never said he was an unsuccessful politician. He is that, among other things. He is the only man who can give us hard facts because he is in charge of the government.
Interviewer: So there you are, hard facts. Isn’t it better to have hard facts than to be dreaming about ideals?
TGM: Are you talking about those four million people currently in desperate straits in this country? Do you think they like it? Do you think they don’t believe in ideals such as a better life? That too is an ideal: they believe their own children deserve as much as the better off, the middle class and the rich. That ideal is called equality.
It’s not the way they refer to it every day, of course. But that is the proper word for it. These things are connected. These ideals are not a matter for a few specialists divorced from reality. Equality means that the bottom four million have a right to food, electricity, to a heated home, to read, to enjoy their pleasures. That is an ideal but it’s not the reality.
This ideal concerns the poverty of four million people and the servitude of ten million, and opposes the torrent of state funded lies with which Viktor Orbán and his underlings flood this small country. Yes, there are ideals in which people believe, that, for example, they should be able to live a decent honourable life. That ideal has roots in Christianity, in liberalism, and in socialism. That is not something they are obliged to know, but they know it. And Viktor Orbán is telling you directly, in your face while laughing at you that that is what you have to live without.
And if, dear fellow Hungarians, that is what you accept that is what you’ll get. There’s nothing anyone can do for now except to regard this terrible speech with hatred and contempt. Because society is weak but it is possible for it to know these things.
[That is the end of the interview. It is a very dark vision of Hungary’s future and TGM is clearly angry. It is fascinating – and liberating – to hear a man talk of socialism with such conviction. It is fascinating that he should include Christianity and liberalism in the struggle for freedom and equality.
What that shows is that TGM is not an old-system communist. He was part of the opposition to the pre-1989 order. He is part of the spectrum that any democratic society should be proud to represent. It is the spectrum Hungary is on the point of leaving. GSz]