The man behind Viktor Orbán’s political ideas: Gyula Tellér

An English-language article on Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech of July 26 claimed that Orbán has a brilliant mind. I don’t know on what basis the author came to this conclusion because most people find Orbán’s ideas incoherent and confused. Moreover, it seems that some of his closest associates considered his “philosophical reflections” on the state of the world unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous. But Orbán defended his decision to deliver the kind of speech he delivered because he as prime minister of Hungary has a unique view of the world which he ought to share with the people.

Here I venture to suggest that it is not his unique political role that has given birth to his “revolutionary” ideas. The “birth mother” is instead a trusted adviser who is described by those familiar with his work as an ideologue. Few people even know his name, although it is becoming ever more apparent that Viktor Orbán’s “system” in large part stems from his adviser’s harebrained ideas.

Who is this man? His name is Gyula Tellér. He is apparently an excellent translator, but his real passion is political theory. He started his political career in SZDSZ but soon enough switched allegiance to Fidesz. Tellér was one of the authors of SZDSZ’s party program of 1990; a few years later he had a hand in formulating Fidesz’s program. To understand this man’s thoughts one ought to read Zoltán Ripp’s excellent essay “Color changes of an éminence grise” (Egy szürke eminenciás színeváltozásai).

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

I cannot summarize Ripp’s long and sophisticated essay in a few paragraphs here. Instead I will concentrate on some less weighty articles that appeared after Gyula Tellér’s ideological influence on the prime minister was discovered.

Ilidkó Csuhaj, who is a political reporter for Népszabadság and therefore not a historian or political philosopher, simply said that “Orbán recited a study of Gyula Tellér in Tusnádfűrdő.” According to Csuhaj, Viktor Orbán was so taken with an article Tellér wrote in the March issue of Nagyvilág (“Was an Orbán system born between 2010 and 2014?”) that he assigned it as compulsory reading for all his ministers.

Unfortunately, the connection between Gyula Tellér and Viktor Orbán goes back much farther than March 2014. From a careful reading of Ripp’s essay and Tellér’s own works it is absolutely clear that Viktor Orbán has been mesmerized by this man’s confused and dangerous ideas.

One of his “theories” explains the force of so-called “solidified structures.” Tellér here refers to the Kádár regime: both its elite and its social structure remain part of life in Hungary. No real regime change, he argues, will take place until those remnants of Kádárism are destroyed on every level: in science, in culture, in art. Everywhere. Anyone who achieved anything in the old regime must be stripped of his position in society. An entirely new middle class has to be created. That’s why for Tellér and hence for Orbán the so-called regime change of 1989-1990 is an increasingly insignificant event.

Another theory of his is that in Hungary there are three societal groups: (1) the old feudal Hungary and its later offshoot, the Hungarian upper middle classes; (2) the bourgeois Hungary; and (3) the old Rákosi socialists who simply changed their colors to become leaders and beneficiaries of Kádár’s Hungary. Initially he was critical of feudal Hungary, but as time went by he began to look upon the Horthy regime as an acceptable and perhaps imitable system.

Tellér started embracing international conspiracy theories, plots hatched abroad against Hungary. He became an enemy of globalization and capitalism. The mover and shaker of Hungarian life in his view became the foreign “investor.” From here Tellér easily arrived at anti-Semitism and is thus considered by Ripp, for example, to be a successor to István Csurka. That’s why Ripp colors Tellér “brown” at the end of his essay. Others are less polite. One blogger (orolunkvincent) calls Tellér “a Nazi madman”  and compares him to Aleksandr Dugin, the man behind Putin’s ideas. The blogger quotes extensively from Tellér’s writings and speeches in which he exhibits fervent anti-Semitic views.

Another blogger (democrat) complains how unfortunate it is that “a single man is behind the whole concept” of Viktor Orbán’s political agenda. Behind Orbán’s “grandiose plan” is Gyula Tellér, whom some people call a crackpot. In Tellér’s paranoid worldview, “the world is against Orbán, who is ready to make the country successful with a brilliant new system, but he is oppressed by the ugly and evil foreign (and Jewish and Marxist) capitalists.”

And here is the latest Tellér gem, uttered at a conference only yesterday. He delivered a long lecture on his interpretation of Hungarian history and politics over the last 50 years. He claimed that “the change of regime began in 1955” when “a well-informed group of people” realized that socialism cannot survive in its present form. Who were they?  They were representatives of “a well-known and significant sub-culture” whose task was “running the economy, the financial system and the press.” He continued by saying that the “members of this group had numerous offspring who learned from their moms and dads that socialism is kaput.” These children of communist parents therefore became liberals and had a large role to play in 1989-1990. So, these people are still with us.

Although Tellér does not name this group, anyone who knows anything about the political culture of the Hungarian right knows that this was an anti-Semitic harangue. Of course, the whole “history” is outright crazy because it assumes that some people are blessed with extraordinary insight into the future. They know exactly what will happen in forty or fifty years and prepare themselves as well as their children for this eventuality.

Today an article appeared on ATV’s website in which Gábor Gavra, its author, gives a list of Tellér’s ideas that can be found in Orbán’s “national system.” The list is too long to repeat here, but it is frightening. Almost as if every aspect of Orbán’s system came straight from Tellér’s ideas. I think it is time to reevaluate Viktor Orbán’s ideology because its origins can be traced to the ideas of a man who holds far-right and anti-Semitic views.

A Hungarian butcher’s fabulous art collection

Today’s theme, art, is not the common fare of this blog. But, fret not, the post will also deal with life in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s. It will even touch on economics. Specifically, how the closed socialist regime in Hungary distorted the prices of art works and barred  twentieth-century Hungarian artists from becoming known outside of the country.

What inspired me to write about all this was an article in yesterday’s Népszabadság. It was about the public exhibit of a private collection of 230 Hungarian masterpieces. At the same time a book, The Secret Collection, appeared about the art works, written by art historian Péter Molnos. The collector of this treasure trove died in 1982 and he was, yes, a kosher butcher with a sixth-grade education.

István Kövesi, the butcher-collector, was one of the few “maszek” (abbreviation of magánszektor/private sector) store owners in those days. His kosher establishment was certified by the Hungarian Jewish religious authorities, but he couldn’t have made a go of the business if he had had to rely only on butchering. So he began making pickles of all kinds, for which the store became famous.

Mr. and Mrs. Kövesi in front of their butcher shop

The Kövesis in front of their butcher shop

What could a well-heeled “maszek” (and most of the “maszek” store owners did in fact prosper) do with his accumulated wealth? Not much. He couldn’t have purchased real estate because a family could have only one dwelling in addition to the one in which the family lived. Buying gold was considered to be a crime. Nobody kept money in the bank because they didn’t want the state know about their wealth. So, some people decided, the smarter ones at least, that converting their cash into art might be a good way of dealing with the dilemma.

It seems that some other “maszek” success stories had the same idea as Kövesi did, but after the change of regime, once the original collector died, the heirs immediately cashed in and the paintings were sold to art galleries or new collectors. Practically no large collection remained intact. Kövesi’s two children, on the other hand, not only hung on to the 230 paintings by the greatest names in Hungarian art but also kept the collection a secret. With some difficulty the owner of the Kieselbach Gallery managed to convince the Kövesi children to allow the collection to be exhibited.

Why did they keep the existence of the collection a secret even after democracy arrived in Hungary? Most likely out of habit. After all, the collection had to be kept a secret because as far as the state was concerned, it was illegally gained wealth. Second, keeping 230 priceless paintings safe in an ordinary, not too well secured apartment in “újlipótváros” (Neue Leopoldstadt), formerly the Jewish section of Pest, was best accomplished if nobody knew about them.

However well pickles sold in Kövesi’s store, he couldn’t have bought nine László Mednyánszky paintings if the price of art had not been so depressed in those days. The poverty of precisely the kinds of people who would have been most likely to collect art was great. If anything, older collectors were selling off pieces of their collections, mostly to BÁV, Bizományi Áruház Vállalat, a consignment store that occasionally held auctions. Any kind of private art deal was illegal, although Kövesi eventually knew enough people in the art world that he managed to get some valuable pieces straight from the artists. It was also illegal to export any work of art from Hungary.

A former economics professor of mine, John Michael Montias, who was on the side an art collector, spent a year in Hungary in 1964-1965. He told me about people arriving at the regular auctions organized by BÁV with suitcases full of cash. Perhaps István Kövesi was one of them because there was at least one occasion on which Kövesi left 160,000 forints for seven famous paintings. The average salary at the time was 2,000 a month.

Today Kövesi’s collection is exceedingly valuable. A couple of recent auction prices for paintings by artists represented in the collection give a sense of the value of the collection. A János Vaszary piece was sold in 2011 for 35 million forints. A Róbert Berényi painting was auctioned off for the same amount. Even the least expensive paintings in the collection are worth a few million.

Among the artists represented in the Kövesi collection are János Vaszary (1867-1938), Imre Ámos (1907-1944), József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927), Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894-1941), Sándor Bortnyik (1893-1976), Izsák Perlmutter (1866-1919), László Mednyánszky, Margit Anna, Lajos Kassák, Jenő Barcsay, Béla Kádár (1877-1956), István Szőnyi (1894-1960), István Csók (1865-1961), Adolf Fényes (1867-1945), József Koszta (1861-1949), and István Pekáry (1905-1981).

As I said, before the change of regime no art work of any kind could leave the country because, the political leaders argued, the treasures of the nation must remain at home. The authorities included anything of presumed value in the list of forbidden items, not just Hungarian “treasures.” To pass through customs every questionable item needed a stamp from the authorities attesting to its “not worth keeping in the country–i.e., junk” status. As a result, these painters, some of whom may have acquired international fame, were unheard of outside of Hungary. It was a disservice to them and to the country.

One more thing about István Kövesi. He himself didn’t know anything about art before he decided to collect paintings. But he learned and also managed to find knowledgeable teachers among art historians and employees of BÁV. It was, however, always he who made the final choice. He obviously had good taste.

János Kornai and Marxism

A few days ago I promised to write something about a short essay by János Kornai, the famous Hungarian economist, on his encounter with Marxism. The essay, entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual), appeared in a volume of Kornai’s collected essays, Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról: Négy tanulmány (Thoughts on capitalism: Four essays) (Budapest, Akadémia, 2012).

Kornai in this essay describes his road to Marxism and his discovery of some of the fundamental flaws of the Marxist system. He had just turned eighteen in 1945 and was open to the ideas of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) after going through  a war, losing his father in Auschwitz and his older brother somewhere in the Soviet Union where he served in a labor battalion. He was attracted to the party that was most resolutely opposed to the Horthy regime and all that it entailed.  So he began his study of the works of Karl Marx in the original German because at that time no Hungarian translation was available.

He began with Das Kapital and was struck by the sharp logic and the precise formulations of his ideas. These attributes appealed to Kornai because he himself is “a maniac for order and precise thinking.” Moreover, eventually he began to surmise that Marxism had universal application. It was just as applicable to the evaluation of a theatrical production as it was to economic problems. Here Kornai steps back a little and observes that “young people desire some kind of universal explanation for all worldly phenomena.” In addition, Marxism appealed to him emotionally because of the German philosopher’s passionate commitment to the oppressed and the dispossessed.

But then came the disillusionment. This process occurred not on an intellectual plane but on moral grounds. It happened when he met an old communist who has been arrested and tortured. His faith in the system was shaken. He had encountered critical voices against Marxism earlier but refused to take them seriously. Once his faith in the moral superiority of the system started to waver, however, he began noticing things that he didn’t want to see before. Problems with the practical application of  socialism. In vain did he look for answers in Marx’s works. It was not that Marx gave wrong answers to these questions, like wastefulness, low quality products, the constant scarcity of goods. The real problem was that it never occurred to him to pose any of these questions in the first place.

Once Kornai’s faith was shaken he began studying Marx more critically and found that there are some really fundamental precepts of Marxism that have proven to be dead wrong in the years since Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. One of these was Marx’s insistence that as a result of the capitalist mode of production the lives of workers will become more and more wretched. It was enough to look around in well-developed capitalist countries to see that this Marxist prediction was wrong. Exactly the opposite was true: the living standards of the proletariat were steadily improving. Without going step by step through his mental processes, the final result was that even before the 1956 Revolution Kornai had become a critic of the socialist system.

So, eventually he had to pose the question to what extent Marx was responsible for what was going on in the Soviet Union of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, in the China of Mao Zedong, and in other socialist countries. What is the relation between the theoretical ideas of Marx and the historical reality of the socialist system? Here I will quote Kornai verbatim: “I will try to answer concisely: the socialist system realized Marx’s plan.”

Kornai is aware that some people might counter that this judgment goes too far. But in Marx’s opinion a market economy doesn’t work. The market is anarchy and chaos. In its place a planned economy must be introduced. Moreover, private property must be abolished and it must be replaced by commonly held ownership. Both of these very basic Marxist doctrines became a reality in the socialist countries. When Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and others invoked Marx’s name and work to defend their policies, they were correct. They had every reason to appeal to him. They were the ones who realized Marx’s dreams.

Kornai also finds Marx “guilty” of rejecting “empty, formal bourgeois constitutionalism, the parliamentary system, and democracy.” He didn’t seem to realize that once a market economy and individual initiatives are gone the system must be directed from above and that very fact results in the repressive apparatus of the state or the ruling party. So, Marx is responsible for what happened in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries, but it is “intellectual responsibility.”

Finally, Kornai briefly analyzes what we still can learn from Marx. After the collapse of the socialist system the belief spread in intellectual circles that Marxism was dead. But in the last few years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the opposite has been true. Marx is in vogue again. “Prophets” have arrived who predict that capitalism is dead, a view Kornai doesn’t share. Yes, capitalism right now is going through a deep crisis but it is alive and will most likely live for a very long time.

Nonetheless, Kornai believes there are some valuable Marxist teachings that are still applicable. One of these is the overextended expansion of credit and production that far surpasses demand. Marx talked about these problems in the first and third volumes of Das Kapital and called attention to the grave consequences of these phenomena. Today we see the results of the irresponsible granting of credit all too clearly. As for the balance between supply and demand, Marx was especially interested in imbalances in the labor market. Today the imbalance in the labor market poses serious problems in the developed world. Marx was one of the pioneers in discovering this danger.

In addition, Kornai also looks upon Marx as the first person who tried the develop something Kornai calls a “system paradigm” (rendszerparadigma). He was an economist, a sociologist, a political scientist, and a historian who tried to combine all these disciplines. Today we call this an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world which attempts a comprehensive understanding of society as a whole.

Kornai ends his brief essay by saying that he is not a Marxist but neither is he a Keynesian. He doesn’t belong to any school or -isms. He considers himself to be an eclectic economist who was influenced by Joseph A. Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Marx “who in this list is always mentioned in the first place.”