Photo: Claudia Martins

Interviews 24 hours is a long time in revolutions János Kornai on taking risks and ending up on opposing sides

János Kornai certainly has been taking risks, and he definitely got his chance to develop in a most unusual way. He started out as a very young journalist in communist Hungary, and he eventually became a professor at Harvard.

Published on on June 30, 2011

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 “For a large part of my life”, says János Kornai, “including the formative years of my youth, I was cut off from the centers of economic science. I was living in Budapest, next to the Iron Curtain, in some sort of isolation. This situation had many drawbacks, but it had also some benefits. It compelled me to find original ways of thinking, instead of working under the direct influence of great masters, following their example, or — as often happens in the centers of culture and science — simply following and imitating the pioneers. I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but in a sense, I share this condition with the composer Joseph Haydn. Haydn spent long decades not in Vienna, the very center of music in his time, but at the court of Esterházy in Hungary, far away from the mainstream. Haydn once wrote, ‘I was cut off from the world, so I had a chance to develop and take risks.’”

János Kornai certainly has been taking risks, and he definitely got his chance to develop in a most unusual way. He started out as a very young journalist in communist Hungary, and he eventually became a professor at Harvard.

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, I was actually one of the top editors of the main Communist Party newspaper. After one or two years of service, I was considered for promotion. A close friend and former classmate of mine was also considered for a similar high-ranking position. When the proposal was submitted to the editor-in-chief, he asked, ‘Is this going to be a kindergarten?’ I was barely 21 when I became editor of the newspaper’s economics section, and my friend, not much older, editor of foreign affairs. We were really a young generation — a generation of fanatics.” 

János Kornai did not   attend university in the Eastern bloc, and when later in life he was exposed to Western academic thought, he is pleased that he was not still a young undergraduate who had to have the basic tenets of the economic mainstream drummed into him. He had a chance, Kornai says, to develop his own thinking, with all its faults. “Living in far-away Hungary did me good”, Kornai writes in his memoir By Force of Thought. “Strange as it may sound, it made it easier for me to retain my intellectual autonomy.”

But you began as an enthusiastic communist, didn’t you?

“Yes, that is true, and I speak about it very frankly. Today, if you talk to the intelligentsia and even to politicians in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some prefer to deny that early part of their lives before the system changed, and you also hear quite a few former party members claiming: ‘Yes, I was forced to join. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a career.’ I find that rather cynical. For me it is easy: I joined because I believed in the ideas of communism.”

You have actually said it was like falling in love.

“Well, that may be a bit exaggerated, but I was certainly an enthusiastic — even for a few years fanatic — believer. To begin with, I am of Jewish origin. I was never a religious person, but under Hitler and under Hungarian law, being Jewish was not a matter of religious belief but a matter of racist discrimination. So I was considered a Jew, and in 1944, when the Germans had occupied Hungary, at a very sensitive age I had to wear the yellow star. I was barely 16 years old. My father was taken to a concentration camp and from there sent on to Auschwitz where he was murdered. Two of my brothers were sent to labor camp. To me the Holocaust is not just an abstract event known from history but my personal experience.”

You were saved by Raoul Wallenberg?

“To be precise, not directly. I got a document from the Wallenberg group, not a Swedish passport, just a piece of paper really, claiming that I was under the protection of the Swedish embassy. I was in a kind of concentration camp, and the Swedish document helped me to escape and to hide. The trauma of the occupation and the Nazi threat made me change my worldview. I was looking for a guarantee that Nazism would not return to Hungary, where a very large part of the population really did sympathize with Hitler and his movement. And because the Communist Party had been illegal under the previous regime, and emphasized being consistent, and in fact the most radical, opponents of Nazism, and because later the Red Army drove the Nazis out of Hungary, that certainly triggered my sympathy for the Communist Party.

“The second explanation is more ideological. At a tender age, when young people’s minds are wide open, I very carefully read Karl Marx. I really worked my way through Das Kapital, taking notes, and I was impressed by the logic and the strong explanatory power of the book. So I was convinced that Marxism was the right doctrine.” 

“Then there is a third   explanation. During those months of persecution in 1944, I was sent to a labor camp, which was actually part of a brick factory. I came from a well-to-do family. In Marxist terms you would call me bourgeois, and here I was living with workers. You could say I met the proletariat, and the proletarians were very good to me. A fourth attraction was my encounter with a few, very charismatic young communist leaders who talked to me, very persuasively. Finally, there is one more component: after the trauma of 1944 I wanted to belong to a community, something I had never experienced. I had been a rather lonely child. So I turned into an enthusiastic member of the communist youth movement, and I became more and more involved. From 1944 until 1953, during those eight years, yes, you could say I was a believer.”

But then your enchantment disappeared?

“It did not simply disappear. It collapsed. First there was the death of Stalin, followed by a change of government in Hungary. The old Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi was not dismissed, but his power was curbed, and we got a new prime minister, also a communist, whose name was Imre Nagy. This was followed by the release from prison of a number of people who had been jailed under Rákosi’s terror regime. Some of these people had been loyal members of the illegal Communist Party before 1944, but under communism they had been brutally tortured in prison.

“I met such a person whom I had known in my newspaper work before he was arrested, an old, very bright, very decent journalist, and he told me his personal story, how he was called a liar, accused of crimes he had never committed, and how he had been punished.

“All this came to me as a complete moral shock. The party I supported and was working for had been using these unacceptable, dreadful methods. And at the same time, figures were published telling us how many people had been arrested and put in jail.

“Here I was, a journalist writing about the economy. As a matter of fact, I had found problems with communist central planning, but that had not changed my weltanschauung. Now I had a problem with all these innocent people who had been arrested and brutalized and tortured. So I started reading various critiques of communist planning, and gradually my thinking changed. If you think of other fanatics, for instance modern suicide bombers, it is impossible to convince them with rational arguments. Their minds are closed. They need some personal experience or trauma in their lives. Then they will open up. That is what happened to me.”

So by October 1956 you were definitely against the government?

“Let us not run too fast. I became an active supporter of Imre Nagy, and when he very soon was forced out — we are talking about 1953—1954, when the hard-liners regained power — I along with many of my friends were fired from our newspaper by a decree from the Politburo, a very high-level decision. It was bad enough to be thrown out of work, but I consider it my lucky day, because it was the start of my career as a scholar and a scientist, someone doing serious research.

You were fired. How did you survive?

“I got another job. Don’t forget, this was the post-Stalinist period in Hungary. Before Stalin died, my group of journalists would probably have been sent to the Gulag or shot. But nobody was arrested. Each of us got another job at a much lower rank. After being fired, I received less than 40 per cent of my earlier salary. That was the penalty for supporting Imre Nagy in 1953—1954.”

Yet, you kept your head. How about your family?

“I was married and had one child at the time. My wife worked at the same newspaper, and even though she was less active politically, she was also fired. She got another job as a journalist, much less prestigious. We were both thrown out and lost a great portion of our income. But we were alive and hadn’t been arrested. It is interesting to follow what happened to members of our group. After 1956, some emigrated, two were arrested and spent several years in prison. One was sentenced to death after 1956 and executed. One of us returned to the Communist Party and became a big shot under the Kádár regime, and a member of the Politburo. And I have my own personal story.”

Where were you in October 1956?

“We are talking about a period of ten days. The Hungarian revolt began on October 23. On the very first day, I was commissioned by one of Imre Nagy’s closest associates to draft Nagy’s economic program. The naïve idea was that, sooner or later, there would be a free parliament and Imre Nagy as prime minister would give this speech. I wasn’t simply a speechwriter who would provide a popular formulation of a given content, a well-defined economic program. I was expected to shape economic policy. And I worked very hard, day and night, for four or five consecutive days.”

Did you take time out to be on the streets, demonstrating?

“No, no. I got a huge office that belonged to the president of Hungary’s bureau of statistics. I had two secretaries taking my notes. Of course, all the time I got phone calls from friends so I could follow what was happening. But at the end of those four or five days, I gave it up. I didn’t finish the job, and I didn’t submit my text to Prime Minister Nagy.”

So what happened?

“Quite frankly, I was not born for politics. I have the mind of a scholar. All the time I consider consequences, what will happen — on one hand and on the other. In 1956, I probably would have been able to give advice similar to what Dubček and Gorbachev later had in mind: socialism with a human face, some hybrid combination of central planning and the market. Not a genuine capitalist market economy, but something like market socialism.

“But on the fourth or fifth day, it became clear to me that if the revolution succeeded, Hungary was going beyond market socialism. There would be a multiparty system. There would be much more private enterprise. I didn’t object to privatization, but I did not know how to do it. If such a system was on its way, I was not the right person to write a program for it. And most likely Imre Nagy would not be the right prime minister to implement the transition to capitalism. So I sent Imre Nagy a message: ‘I’m not able to do this.’”

Then what did you do?

“In a revolution, 24 hours is a very long time. For one single day, I joined a new newspaper started by my old friends, the followers of Imre Nagy. In modern language, I would say they were the radical reformist wing of the Communist Party. The leader of this group, Miklós Gimes, a very dear friend — you can see his picture in my memoirs — became a martyr. He was sentenced to death and executed at the same time as Imre Nagy.”

But during these hectic days you did have some hope?

“Of course, all this time we feared Soviet intervention. But at the same time we really did imagine that a kind of compromise could be worked out. There was the Austrian situation. In 1955, one year earlier, Austria had in fact won its independence. There was also the Finnish example. Finland was enjoying a multi-party system which included a tacit agreement with the Soviet Union. Finnish politicians did not attack the Soviet Union, not even in their speeches. The idea of ‘Finlandization’ of the formerly communist Hungary appeared in our discussion — and many people thought it was not totally impossible.

“Imre Nagy really wanted a neutral Hungary. He didn’t want to turn against the Soviet Union. In retrospect, you can see this was not politically feasible. One reason was the Suez affair, which unfortunately coincided with the Hungarian uprising. What was of vital interest to the West was not Hungary, but what was going on in the Suez Canal. We were a little people, hoping against hope that there was a chance of compromise between the West and the East.”

What actually triggered the Soviet invasion?

“You are bringing up issues on which I am not a great expert. Here in Budapest we have a wonderful research institute with historians specializing in this period. It is called the Institute of 56 (56-os Intézet) which, as the name suggests, focuses on 1956. You would also have to ask kremlinologists, who could give you a better answer. From our national Hungarian perspective, all that mattered was that after ten days, the revolution was smashed and Soviet tanks entered. First we were fed vague promises that there would be no reprisals, but then there followed several years of terror and repression.”

Still, eventually Hungary became the happiest camp in the Gulag, the exponent of goulash communism. How did that come about?

“This interview will be rather disproportionate. We have spent a long time talking about hours and days of the revolution, and now you are jumping across decades. It is very important not to jump from 1956 to goulash communism. That would give you the wrong idea about Hungarian history.

“First of all, on November 4, 1956, the Russian tanks arrived. After that, we are talking about a period of seven years of terrible, brutal repression. There was no goulash, no liberty — and the brutality can be gauged from the number of death sentences. We are a small country, with a population somewhat larger than in Sweden. The number of executions after 1956 is between 250 and 300, which is a terrible number.

“After Lajos Kossuth’s and Sándor Petőfi’s revolution of 1848—1849 against the Habsburgs, many people were executed, and the same thing occurred after the defeat of Béla Kun’s communist revolution in 1919. After the 1944 occupation, a number of Nazis and leading members of the Arrow Cross were executed. But adding it all up, you have the revolution in 1848, and you have four months of communist power in 1919, and you have the bloody tragedy caused by the Nazis, and the total number of executions after those events is still smaller than the number of death sentences handed out after 1956. The difference is really dramatic. This was the revenge for ten days of revolution. Several thousand people were arrested, and several tens of thousands were fired from their jobs and banned from public life. The backbone of the Hungarian people was smashed.”

After 1963, the Kádár   regime, which had been put in place by the Soviets, changed track. It became, Kornai points out, somewhat more tolerant and somewhat more market-oriented. There was, he says, a kind of tacit compromise between the regime and a large portion of the people.

“Liberalization didn’t start as something emerging from a wonderful liberal mind. When you already have an obedient and frightened people, you can afford to be generous. In Czechoslovakia, dissidents were arrested and put in jail. In Hungary, dissidents were harassed by the police, yes, but not thrown in jail. There were moderate market reforms. Companies remained state-owned but started acting like autonomous market players. Hungary was somewhere between communist central planning and a genuine market economy — not a hybrid, but a bastard. I used to call it a plastic Wall Street, the simulation of a true market economy.”

A characteristic feature of Hungary’s goulash period, says János Kornai, was the decision to establish what he calls a premature welfare state.

“Hungary introduced free health services for practically every citizen, free education, including academic studies, a state pension for everyone, a large number of kindergartens, and promises of good care for the elderly. Hungary accepted all the commitments of a welfare state but did so without reaching the level of development of the Scandinavian countries.”

Even today’s rich Sweden, János Kornai maintains, cannot afford a full-blown welfare state, either financially or fiscally.

“Now imagine Hungary. With one third of Sweden’s per-capita GDP, how could Hungary afford free education for every university student and free health services for everyone? It could only be done at a very low, inferior level. But even after the collapse of communism, the population expected to enjoy all these commitments from the state and at the same time a Western standard of living and consumption. Hungarians are unhappy about paying taxes but expect the welfare state to continue.”

Who paid for all it all?   Both goulash communism and Hungary’s premature welfare state, János Kornai points out, were to a large extent financed by the West.

“Hungary managed to get huge foreign loans for two important reasons. One: Hungary always paid on time. Two: Hungary was a showcase, a model the West was hoping the rest of the communist bloc would emulate.”

Did Hungary’s goulash communism facilitate the transition after 1989, or did it in fact make the changeover more difficult? János Kornai has no simple answer.

“In one sense, transition became easier. Because of the goulash period, Hungary, when change happened, already had people with some experience of operating under market conditions. The state-owned enterprises were buying and selling without listening to commands from higher up.

“Even before 1989, Hungarians could travel. So the Western way of life was more familiar to Hungarians than to Russians or Georgians or Ukrainians. On Hungary’s National Day, even under communism, several hundred thousand Hungarians went to Vienna on a gigantic shopping tour. This is a well-known historical fact. But that also made the transition more difficult, because we had highly unrealistic expectations. Who did Hungarians think they were? Did they really see themselves at the level of Austrian consumers?”

Hungarians were naïve, says Kornai.

“They were also naïve about democracy. Many people hoped the multi-party system would work as smoothly as in Britain or in Sweden. But the West has a long democratic tradition. Hungary has never had an extended period of democracy. On top of that, we inherited a lot of corruption.”

But how far has   the system really changed? In the Soviet Union, erstwhile communist comrades quickly learned the tricks of capitalism and became the new Russian oligarchs. Are there such examples in Eastern Europe as well, including Hungary? Kornai admits that such people exist.

“But it would be a gross misunderstanding to think that those who were high up in the old hierarchy are now the richest people under the new system. That is absolutely not true. Among the nouveaux riches under the new system, there are many who were not members of the old ruling elite, and if they were members, they didn’t pull rank.

“What did we actually have? One Hungarian sociologist, Tamás Kolosi, has called it the revolution of the deputy section leaders. He is referring to technocrats or bureacrats in the communist hierarchy who had a fairly high position in the communist hierarchy but in fact were at least four or five levels below the top of the top.

“The currently most influential Hungarian oligarch was in charge of a department store under Kádár. Another person, really a high-level technocrat, is now retired with a very modest pension. Don’t think the big shots of the old system are now the big shots of the new system. That’s much too simplified.”

Those at the top, were they too rigid, too stuck in the old system?

“They had qualities which served them well under the old system but do not serve them well today. Under a tyranny, how do you get to the top? You have to be obedient. You have to be loyal to Number One. You have to say yes. You don’t say no. This is much more like a military system. Certainly, you have to be very cautious. Don’t lose the benevolence of the tyrant. But to become rich under a capitalist system, you have to be innovative. You must be a risk taker.”

Lennart Samuelson, a Swedish economic historian, has described the crude competition which did exist within the Soviet command economy. State-owned companies fought viciously to lay hands on what they needed for their own production. There were special agents, called tolkachi, who knew how the system worked, whom to bribe and how to get things. Does Kornai see the tolkachi as budding capitalists before the transformation?

“Yes, there were such people. But in the new system the tolkachi are facing a very different task. Under communism they struggled to find raw materials and spare parts — they even recruited labor — but they didn’t have to sell cars. Under the old system there was a six-year waiting list if you wanted a car. So there was no problem selling cars. Now sellers face competition from Toyota, Nissan, Fiat, Volkswagen. Marketing to the public is not the same as networking with those who provide parts and materials. So the tolkachi are out of business. In the new system you need a different kind of person.”

How, finally, does Kornai explain what must be seen as the sudden implosion of the communist bloc?

“The system finally cracked up when Mikhail Gorbachev told Eastern European leaders: ‘Don’t count on us, we’re not going to come in with our tanks!’ That opened the way for Václav Havel and all the others.”

Did the Soviet Union collapse because Ronald Reagan and the US pushed for higher defense expenditures, while Moscow could not compete?

“There is an element of truth in that, but you also have to remember the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, which was as bitter as the US defeat in Vietnam. But the Americans survived, and the Soviet Union was not able to digest being defeated by a small and poor country.”

Kornai believes there is also another explanation, a combined effect of political and psychological factors.

“In view of my own life experience, I find the change of mind of the ruling Soviet elite particularly important. A repressive system, communist or otherwise, doesn’t rely exclusively on its military or police. The system also needs enthusiastic supporters. Hitler survived until the last day of the Third Reich, because all the time there were people who believed and followed him with enthusiasm.

“Now, if the believers are disenchanted, the game is over. That happened to me and my friends in the early 1950s, and it happened four decades later to a large number of the Soviet intelligentsia and a large number of Soviet functionaries and party apparatchiks.

“These were people who realized their country was not winning the world-wide struggle for primacy and dominance. Their life under communism was far from being the best imaginable. As long as a regime is very repressive, it can maintain the status quo. The dictator tells himself: ‘Don’t allow demonstrations, drive the students away from the main square. That way you can maintain your regime.’ I think that is the lesson Deng Xiaoping drew from the Soviet experience. I quote him: ‘A little bloodshed might be of good use.’ If you are soft and allow people to do a bit of autonomous thinking, then there will be a softening up and ultimately your system will collapse. That is what happened in Gorbachev’s Russia and that is what the ruling Chinese communists wanted to avoid.”

Is this also what is going on in Northern Africa these days?

“I am more cautious than many others who address this subject. I know a bit about Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and even China. As a scholar, as someone in the business of making serious, considered statements, I have no comment about what is happening in the Arab world.”

But János Kornai certainly knows the complexities of Hungary.

“I can give you one lesson from my Eastern European experience. In October 1956, there were four or five very different groups on the streets of Budapest, participating in the same demonstrations. Four decades later, those groups have become parties opposing each other. If you ask them what ought to be done about Hungary, they have completely different perspectives. Shouting ‘Down with this!’ or ‘Down with that!’ didn’t turn them into a homogenous group.

“Don’t make crude generalizations. Each country is different from the others. Don’t speak about Egyptians or Moroccans or Syrians as collectives. They are very heterogeneous groups, including significantly different parties, movements, and sub-groups. They dislike each other; they may even hate each other. The fact that they shout the same slogans for two days doesn’t means they will be marching together for a long time. So I don’t know. You have to talk to experts of those countries who know more precisely the composition of the rebellious crowds and the different groups of the opposition. Listen to a more accurate analysis before you hastily draw superficial and perhaps misleading policy conclusions.” ≈

NOTE: The interview was conducted in late March 2011.