Historically speaking, political funerals have been associated with authoritarian rule. Surrounded with an aura of sanctity that even brutally oppressive regimes have been reluctant to suppress – with exceptions, of course, as the Israeli state demonstrated during Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral procession last May – political funerals have often acted as outlets of public dissent when other forms of protest are unavailable. The association, however, misses an important precondition: a conception of grief and mourning as a collective ritual. Such a perspective can help make sense of our contemporary predicament. The gradual eclipse of political funerals does not, of course, signal the eclipse of authoritarianism. It rather indicates another wind of change, one that has swept through authoritarian and liberal regimes alike: the transformation of mourning into a private affair.
Against the spirt of his times, Gáspár Miklós Tamás’s funeral in Budapest in January 2023 was unequivocally political. It did not just bring together relatives and old friends. The overwhelming majority of those who made their way to Farkasrèti cemetery on that cold Tuesday afternoon did not know Gáspár personally. With the exception of a couple of supporters of Orbán’s government (some of whom came, perhaps, to see with their own eyes what a Hungarian newspaper announced after Gáspár’s death: the end of Hungarian Marxism), this wonderfully mixed crowd of young and old, local and visitors, was there because their grief for the loss of a public intellectual was not a private affair.
Gáspár was born in 1948 in what was historically seen as the capital of Transylvania, a city Hungarians call Kolozsvár and Romanians Cluj. In 1974, in line with Ceaușescu’s attempts to embed his rule in nationalist mythologies, the pre-Roman Napoca was added, giving the city its contemporary name, Cluj-Napoca. Linguistic differences and national myths aside, these various appellations all describe a ‘castle within a closed space’. The ruins of castle Turnul Croitorilor remain on the outskirts of the old town, but the rest of the name has never rung true. The city’s permanently suspended sense of national belonging meant that it was more open than closed: Gáspár’s wide horizons, intellectually and geographically, can be seen as a testament to that.
With life stories forged in the turbulent years before, during and after the Second World War, his parents Gáspár Tamás (1914-1978) and Erzsébet Krausz (1907-1977), committed internationalist communists, were a strong influence in this same direction. While many Jewish relatives from Gáspár’s mother’s side were murdered in Auschwitz, she escaped deportation because she was already imprisoned as a ‘Bolshevik agitator’ by Antonescu’s Nazi-allied military dictatorship. His father, in prison since 1938 for communist activities, had his sentence abbreviated by forced conscription to the front, returning to Cluj in 1944 with an injury that forced him to walk on crutches for the rest of his life.
Their trajectories after the war reflected the fate of a large part of the revolutionary movement crushed by Stalinism and nationalism. Many of their comrades, who had survived torture at the hands of the Romanian and Hungarian secret services or the Gestapo, returned from Nazi concentration camps only to be re-arrested by the authorities. Contrary to Stalinist apologetics, it was steadfast allegiance to the emancipatory project that made such people dissidents against the new ‘socialist’ regimes. In his childhood and adolescence, Gáspár’s parents transmitted their knowledge and experiences to their son: alongside music, poetry and philosophy and the necessity of rigorous study to grasp each one, they taught him techniques for withstanding torture, in expectation of the arrival of the black car of ‘their’ Party.
Gáspár’s turn came in the early hours of a bitter February morning in 1974. The reason was not had he had done but what he refused to do, namely write an idiotic appraisal of Ceaușescu’s new ‘moral code’ for the Utunk literary magazine where he was employed. This cost him his job and, shortly after, the black car arrived, inaugurating a period of intense intimidation. When the regular ‘invitations’ of the Romanian secret police became unbearable and a prison sentence only a matter of time, his parents urged him to leave the country. In 1978 he did exactly that.
He could have settled in France: an uncle worked at the Renault factory in Paris. Instead, he opted for Hungary, inspired by the growing opposition movement there. His mauvaise reputation preceded him, however, and he was greeted by the secret police of a system just as ‘mendacious, stupid, brutal, repressive and treacherous’ as the one he had left behind. A job teaching philosophy at the University of Budapest would eventually also be cut short by his engagement with the dissident movement. When, after the Jaruzelski coup in Poland of 1981, he published his support for the Polish opposition under his own name, he was, once again, fired.
It is often overlooked today, but the revolt of East German construction workers in June 1953, the workers’ councils of Hungary in 1956 or the 1968 uprising in Czechoslovakia were made in the name of proletarian self-management, not that of market freedom. Gáspár’s dissident network similarly advanced a critique of the regime from the left. Yet, though inspired by the anti-Stalinist positions of Socialisme ou Barbarie or Karl Korsch, by the 1980s many dissidents, Gáspár among them, started feeling that ‘attempts to overcome the Soviet-style system from the left were doomed’ (see his ‘Where We Went Wrong’, 2009). Increasingly convinced that putting an end to dictatorship meant ‘paying the price of capitalism’, they began to seek theoretical justification for their change of position. The times found Gáspár taking various teaching posts in the West: his wide knowledge and his linguistic genius – he was more than fluent in many languages – allowed him to teach in universities including Columbia, Oxford, École des Hautes Études, Chicago, Yale and the New School. In these years, his deep disappointment and anger at the oppression of the ‘communist’ regimes melded with a (neo)conservative zeitgeist.
Their collapse was accompanied by an upsurge of collective hope and political imagination. Gáspár hastily returned to take part. But the dismantling of the Stalinist apparatus went hand in hand with ‘an economic black hole, galloping unemployment and Third World-type inequalities’ (see his ‘Words from Budapest’, 2013). Party chairman for the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and elected to the opposition after the transition, Gáspár felt implicated in the historical disaster during which, in a country of 10 million, 2 million jobs evaporated while parliament spent months debating the republican coat of arms. ‘Our naïve liberalism’, he later reflected, ‘delivered a nascent democracy into the hands of irresponsible and hate-filled right-wing politicos, and contributed to the re-establishment of a provincial, deferential and resentful social world, harking back to before 1945’. What was intended as ‘liberation from centralized coercion’ ultimately resulted in nothing more than a ‘weakening of compound social power’.
In response, Gáspár ‘went back to school’ and re-emerged, once again, a dissident. In addition to Marx, Gáspár returned to the council communist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions that he believed had seen ‘much more clearly than famous and brilliant theorists that, however deserved the terminal defeat of the Soviet bloc. . . it was at the same time a historical disaster, heralding the demise of working-class power, of adversary culture, the end of two centuries of beneficent fear for the ruling classes’. He became an avid reader of Italian operaismo and the German Wertkritik school as developed by authors like Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz, as well as the writings of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Guy Debord became one of his favourite thinkers. These resources, coupled with his observation of a transition that had unleashed the ‘most destructive power of capitalism’, set the stage for his most profound contributions to radical critical theory, re-conceptualizing communism as the emancipatory abolition of capital, state, nation and class. While most of his writings on these topics are in Hungarian, a significant number of essays and interviews were written, given and/or published in English, French and German. (And as his young comrades confirmed recently, a lot more will be published in English in the near future.)
Gáspár wrote and commented extensively on Central and Eastern European affairs. In numerous interviews (whose eloquence renders them of equal value to his writings), the dissident years before the collapse of the Soviet world and the transition to market capitalism were central topics, as were subsequent developments in the region. One of his most influential texts, On Post-Fascism (2000), is widely seen as a prophetic account of what has now become the all too familiar phenomenon of ‘authoritarian’ or ‘right-wing’ populism. For Gáspár the term ‘post-fascism’ was more appropriate.
Such interventions contributed to an image of Gáspár as an expert analyst of the region and a reliable forecaster of its authoritarian turn. Though flattering, this view is somewhat misleading. It was his analysis of the universal tendencies within capitalist social relations and its propensity towards (and compatibility with) authoritarianism that above all propelled his thinking, rather than any intimate knowledge of Romania or Hungary. On Post-Fascism begins, after all, by shredding any implication that what he is about to describe is regionally specific. Pointing to ‘a cluster of policies, practices, routines, and ideologies that can be observed everywhere in the contemporary world’, Gáspár’s primary concern was to spell-out what was post about contemporary fascist and authoritarian tendencies. Rather than relying on a violent mass movement, death squads and even the occasional suspension of the social function and political power of the bourgeoisie, contemporary authoritarianism in fact sits very comfortably within Western-style electoral democracies and a free market framework. In the absence of a radical, communist workers’ movement (the eradication of which was the historical task of Nazism), there was no longer any need to militarize the whole of society. Militarizing the police appeared to be sufficient.
It is for this reason that the frequent depiction of authoritarianism as a peculiarity of Central and Eastern Europe (and Gáspár as its local critic) is ultimately a mystification. The Polish and Hungarian governments do not hide their contempt for key aspects of EU law, or have any qualms about presenting their racist, anti-LGBTQ and anti-left positions as a defence of Western Christian civilization. But it was a French president who declared that the existence of a ‘rule of law’ renders any talk about repression or police violence ‘unacceptable’, while his militarized police maimed hundreds of gilets jaunes demonstrators with full impunity. It was in Greece that investigative journalists were wiretapped by the secret services and where the law-and-order dogma propounded by the government co-existed with extensive evidence of police collaboration with the mafia. Gáspár’s insistence that it was a mistake to approach contemporary authoritarianism through the lens of Central and Eastern Europe was not, unfortunately, given the attention it deserved. Even many on the left who otherwise refuse to normalize authoritarian tendencies in Western liberal democracies continue to describe their emergence as a process of ‘Orbánization’ .
Gáspár also pioneered the concept of ethnicism (‘an apolitical, destructive practice opposed to the idea of citizenship’), contrasting it with a civic-democratic nationalism that he went so far as to proclaim the only remaining ‘principle of cohesion in a traditionless capitalism’. In later years, however, he grew increasingly sceptical of the universalizing potential of national citizenship: buried under anti-Roma policies in Eastern Europe or the EU’s systematic anti-migrant violence, citizenship had become weaponized as a justification for exclusion. When parts of the left joined this chorus and condoned the exclusion of migrants as a prerequisite for re-establishing a national welfare state, Gáspár did not just see a form of ‘banal left nationalism’, inspired by bygone visions of social democracy. He also saw in such positions the shameful affirmation of a contemporary paradox in which equality, for the first time in history, is portrayed as ‘an elitist idea’.
Recognizing this regression did not mean, however, that Gáspár saw equality as the end goal of a radical transformation of society. In one of his most penetrating analyses, ‘Telling the Truth About Class’ from 2006, he explored the ways in which the historical trajectory of the left had been split between a demand for equality and recognition of the working class and a call for its abolition. On one side, Gáspár saw a ‘Rousseau-ian’ affirmation of class: against the bourgeois projection of the working class as barbaric and uneducated, a mob ‘tied to vice and corporeality’, Rousseau-inspired socialism counter-projected the working class’s cultural superiority and ‘angelic’ nature. On the other side was the lineage deriving from Marx, who had identified the historical potential of revolutionary transformation in the wretched and alienated existence of a proletariat that has ‘nothing to lose but its chains’. Calls for a more egalitarian and democratic inclusion of workers might be noble, but they ignored the constitution of the working class through the capitalist mode of production. Quoting from the Grundrisse, Gáspár reminded his readers that ‘labour itself has become a moment of capital’; for this reason, while calls for equality (rightly) attacked persistent systems of privilege and caste, they failed to identify the significance of capitalist social relations in the production and maintenance of class society. Communism should be the abolition of class society, not an equitable recognition of its constituent parts.
A few years ago, I was invited to Hamburg to join Gáspár on a panel discussion that sought to criticize left nationalism and notions of sovereignty through emphasis on the question of migration. As luck would have it, the organizers had us staying in the same house; it did not take long before we decided to extend our stay for a few days, which we spent taking long walks around this exceptionally hospitable German city, trying out sausages, drinking wine, and talking insatiably. In that time and place we became, I dare say, friends.
Ever since, we maintained regular contact, using emails for logistical arrangements (we brought him to Berlin for a public discussion on nationalism and migration, an event that took place under the heavy shadow of the Hanau massacre that had happened the day before) but hand-written letters for more engaged exchanges. The terrible news of his cancer intensified our correspondence. Among other things, I promised him that once he beat that awful disease, I would find a small datscha near Berlin for him and his daughter Hanna. He welcomed the idea as something that could ‘help our mood and give us a semblance of a putative future’.
The fluctuations of his illness and the state of the world at large did little to subdue his pessimism. ‘It is an uphill struggle’, he wrote to me two years ago, ‘to defend myself from feelings of disgust, contempt & hatred when I am looking at this world’. But expressions of despair were, despite everything, the exception. Short of breath but full of life, he wondered in his last letter if he could ‘venture forth on an eight-hour train journey to the town of my birth’. He was also excited about finishing a text on how ‘resistance to war had turned young Lukács, Bloch [and] Benjamin into revolutionaries’. Regretfully, I never responded. The fear of sending a letter that might never be received paralyzed me.
When we first met in Hamburg, I gave Gáspár a copy of Paolo Virno’s ‘The Horror of Familiarity’, a text which he became very fond of. In it, Virno evokes the dialectic between Heimlich/Unheimlich (familiar/uncanny) prevalent in our times, drawing attention to the ominous, hyper-modern appeals to tradition and Heimat. ‘Anytime one tries to say: country, community or authentic life, penetrative and frightening screams come out’ Virno writes, suggesting instead that the search for familiarity is a ‘historical bet, not an already guaranteed property’. In a similar vein, Gáspár answered the accusation that communism is insensitive to the ‘Home’ by unequivocally declaring: ‘Yes, it is, as it is concerned about the homeless’. As it turned out, his last public intervention was a text defending the homeless against renewed attack in Hungary. ‘One should not live on the streets’, he wrote, ‘one should protest there’. There is, perhaps, no more fitting legacy than this.
Read on: G.M. Tamás, ‘Words from Budapest’, NLR 80.