Hungary, politics, identity, hate speech, political concepts, governance, rhetoric,
political discourse, Dubravka Ugrešić, Hanna Arendt
Published by the Political Science Institute
of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
1014 Budapest, Országház u. 30.
Responsible for publishing: the Director of IPS HAS
Cover design and layout: Mariann Kovács
Finnish and Hungarian political scientists, historians and students participated in a seminar in Budapest on 31 August – 2 September, 2006, with title On Politics: Rhetoric, Discourse and Concepts. The seminar was organised by Collegium Budapest, Finnagora (The centre of Finnish culture in Hungary) and the Centre of Political Discourse Studies (CEPODS) of Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Papers were presented by Kari Palonen (University of Jyväskylä), Heino Nyyssönen (University of Jyväskylä) Emilia Palonen (University of Essex), Balázs Trencsényi (CEU, Budapest) and Márton Szabó (ELTE University and CEPODS of HAS, Budapest). The third day of the seminar was a so-called student-day. PhD students presented papers connected to their dissertations. All students are members of CEPODS working on various political discourse issues, and most of them are supervised by Márton Szabó. This e-book includes their papers presented at the seminar on 2 September, 2006.
Zoltán Gábor SZŰCS
What does 'People' Mean?1
The Traditions and Horizons of a Political Concept
In the following, I aim to discuss the current meanings and uses of a political concept of great significance in the history of the Hungarian democratic transition, 1987-1990. I will study five types of the usage of the concept of ‘people’, namely ‘popular sovereignty’, ‘subject of direct democracy’, ‘outsider’, ‘peasant’ and subject of ‘populist vs. metropolitan debate’. through which we can witness the complexity of using a political concept in political discourses.
Why should we study the history of a concept at all? And especially why the history of ‘people’?
In this exploration I will be engaged in a conceptual historical viewpoint in the sense that I will deal more with a concept than with a word. Quentin Skinner says in an essay that a ‘word’ and a ‘concept’ might be very different things. There could be a word referring to various concepts as well as there could be a concept referred to by various words. Obviously, concepts should be the proper subjects of a conceptual history.
Furthermore I presuppose together with Quentin Skinner that the meaning of a political concept is its use in particular contexts for various purposes, and to give its history is to discover the ways it was used. From this follows the need for a conceptual history in a contextual manner.
Similarly, I accept that these contexts are at least partly of ‘linguistic’ nature and to understand the history of a concept I need an exploration of the discursive determinants of using concepts, that is, of discursive traditions and the interplay between these traditional usages of concepts and the usages being studied in this essay.
These premises are the points of departure of my analysis. I will try to present how the concept of ‘people’ existed in several forms and within a number of contexts as well as how it carried many different meanings thus serving various political ends between 1989 and 1990. This concept was one of the most significant resources of the political debates during the democratic transition.
From the ‘state of workers’ to ‘popular sovereignty’ Among other things, the democratic transition meant a reconsideration of the whole constitutional system of socialist Hungary, which entailed the re-emergence of the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’ in a Hungarian context. In this section I will consider the concept of people as ‘the subject of politics’ in a constitutional sense.
To begin with, the socialist state was based on an old Marxist philosophical tradition in a specific, Leninist-Stalinist, interpretation and on an also old socialist constitutional discourse which from time to time sought to update the Marxist conception of statehood and subjectivity according to the developments of the philosophical discourse. As for the forms and institutions in which these discourse were conducted, both of them consisted of long successions of theoretical and practical works ranging from philosophical and scientific books through statute books and on to pamphlets, journal and newspaper articles, speeches, and a number of political and jurisdictional acts.
Furthermore, both of them had their own long and structured histories with various contests, trends, schools and streams embedded into different political situations and carrying specific political intentions. Finally, we have to keep in mind the fact that these discourses existed within the borders of the socialist block. Determined by the well-known political conditions of the Soviet world, they were local versions of the Soviet and other state-socialist political philosophical and constitutional discourses in more or less close intellectual interaction with these discourses. For example, during the socialist period Hungarian jurisprudence was primarily influenced by Vishinsky’s ‘socialist normativism’ theory2. Another example is that the first written Hungarian constitution (1949) was established together with the beginning of the communist political domination, and that this document was a translation of the 1936 Stalinist constitution,3 which, as a sign of further adaptive activity, was succeeded by the publication of a number of further legal documents.4 Moreover, the most important reworking of the text of the Hungarian constitution was also part of the series of constitutional activities all over the socialist block that intended to demonstrate the beginnings of ‘advanced’ or ‘existing’ socialism after the 22 Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.
These discourses (both the philosophical and the constitutional one) represented a specific version of Marxism and they were actually left untouched by the Marxist trends outside the socialist block. They retained a class-based vision of Marxist philosophy that explicitly denied the existence of a unitary human essence, at least in the ‘world ofalienation’ (!) and presupposed a subdivision of humankind into classes according to production relations. On the other hand, it was considered possible that in the communist future the unity of humankind might be achieved if revolution puts an end to the history of ‘alienation’ and subsequently the state dies away.
Until the death of the state that this sort of Marxist vision of politics set in the future, a socialist constitutional discourse was needed which could provide a conceptualization of political subjectivity, an alternative to the enlightened picture of equal human and civil rights. This socialist version of citizenship integrated the sociological vision of divided humankind into the constitution, and replaced the individual citizen with the ‘worker’ as well as the people (the political community of a country) with ‘working people’. As it was declared in the first article of the 1936 constitution, ‘The Soviet Union is a socialist state of workers and peasants.’ (Kovács 1982: 201)
If we examine any of the socialist constitutions, some recurring topoi emerge ranging from ‘working people possess all the power’ through ‘everyone has the right and is obliged to work’ to ‘rights of work’. It was through these propositions that the socialist constitutional discourse offered an alternative to the ‘Western’ tradition of democracynd.
Certainly this image of the socialist constitutional discourse is somewhat oversimplifying and underestimates the territorial and historical variety of socialisms. For example, as Márton Szabó argued in an essay (Szabó 2006), there existed a plurality in the interpretation of the word ‘worker’ in the different periods of socialism. There was the almost ethical vision of the self-conscious worker in the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, the intensely politicized image of the Stakhanovite ‘knight of labour’ in the Stalinist 1950s, and the growing distance between the economic concept of ‘workforce’ and the depoliticizing and privatizing ‘toiler’ in the soft dictatorship of the Kádár regime. Some of these interpretations were present in the socialist constitutional discourse, while others were articulated through other discourses (science, mass media, politics etc.). There existed, nonetheless, a kind of communication between these modes of conceptualizations. Furthermore, the difference between ‘Western’ discourses and the socialist model was historically changing. Apparently, early socialism tried to be more radically discontinuous with its enlightened predecessor than later socialist constitutions, which adhered more to their Western rivals.
All in all, we can argue that in East-Central Europe the socialist constitutional discourses united the specific Marxist sociological vision of a divided humankind with the united humankind of the enlightened tradition. This fact may account for some events of the constitutional change of the system in the course of which an anticommunist as well as a democratic discourse replaced its socialist predecessor.
While it must not be overestimated, the transition was to a certain degree influenced by the logic of the socialist constitutional discourse itself, which had regularly contrasted the ‘Western’ and the ‘socialist’ patterns. This way an anticommunist turn – not to mention fascism and other dictatorships – may have predictably followed the Western democratic model that was described in the socialist discourse through a series of oppositions: the reign of ‘working people’ could be replaced by a kind of ‘popular sovereignty’ which was admittedly part of the ‘Western’ model.
What is more, a vast literature of comparative legal studies prepared the ground to such a transition in Hungary in the 1980s 5. Since the socialist constitutional discourse regarded the constitution as a kind of political declaration based on the historical sociology of the current state of socialism, the socialist constitution needed ongoing reformation according to ‘socialist progress’(Kovács 1982: 96-107). From the early 1980s the constitutional debates were embedded into and legitimized by the discourse of the ongoing reformation of the socialist polity, and the most current Western constitutional technologies as well as the classics of Western models could be silently but without repressions reflected on.
While constitutional discourse was only one of a number of professional discourses during socialism, it received larger emphasis when the opposition movements emerged, as the opposition elite was recruited from such professional groups like historians, lawyers, sociologists, economists etc. That is why the concept of popular sovereignty could become part of the ideology of the democratic transition.6
Democracy: the rule of people or something else? In an enduring debate on the institution of the President of the Hungarian Republic in 1989-1990 we can observe that the concept of ‘people’ was not present in the form of popular sovereignty but it was more related to questions of what role the representatives of people (i. e. Members of Parliament) may take.7 When in 1990 the Parliament, based on an agreement of the leading party of the governing coalition and the largest opposition party, eliminated the norm prescribing a referendum about the form of election of the President from the Constitution, fierce argument commenced over the rights and the legitimacy of a representative in contrast to the people sending him or her to the Parliament.
How can we grasp what was at stake in this debate if we compare it to the constitutional discourse discussed in the previous section? While in the latter the word ‘people’ denoted a ‘Western’ type of arranging the polity, that is to say, it was a counter-concept of the ‘worker’, in this section I will speak about a conceptualization of people in which a direct democratic vision of politics encountered a representative model.
Comparing these conceptualizations, we can see that the former was part of a professional discourse that infiltrated into political life, while the latter was debated by amateurs, at least from a legal point of view. Defenders of direct democracy – such as Zoltán Király, formerly a very popular reporter on television and one of the few to have received enough votes to enter already in the first of the two rounds of parliamentary elections in 1990 – were not constitutional lawyers and did not use the concept of ‘people’ in a strictly constitutional legal sense. On the contrary, they preferred an immediate access to the ‘people’s will’ against a constitutional system of any ‘checks and balances.’ This was pronounced through such topoi as ‘When I organized political gatherings...’ or ‘When I met the people...’. For example, when Király attacked the two-party agreement, he referred to two letters which explicitly articulated the opinion of the ‘people’ when they said “ Before the two parties won the confidence of the people they had opted for the change of political system, and now it appears that they decide over the head of the people, without asking the people, just as it happened in the time of the state-party. Not so much by their words as by their acts they explain what the politicians ruling our country were ceaselessly doing in the past decades: that people do not know what is good for them, but we, politicians do, and the people will do what we think is good. Is this the famous change of the political system?” and “I was dismayed to hear that you would permanently elect the President of the republic[that is, not only the pro-term president]. We do not want Mr. Antall to spare us the trouble, we go to vote with pleasure. Will they decide without our consent – again?Thank you, but we’ve had enough of that”8 As a consequence, Király called for a referendum.
However, the opponents of direct democracy (the vast majority of the parliamentary parties) self-confidently contested the need to access people’s will by any other means than parliamentary elections. As a representative of the largest governing party, László Salamon said in a debate: “This Parliament is a Parliament elected by the Hungarian people in free elections, it has received its mandate from the people, this Parliament is the trustee and the bearer of popular sovereignty’9 (He also explicitly formulated the dichotomy between the proponents of direct democracy and the supporters of the representative system: “Most of those contesting the election of the President by the Members of Parliament in last week’s debate argued that this way the election would entail the injury of popular sovereignty, the withdrawal of the popular rights and the restriction of the democracy.”10 Nevertheless, it was also common to contend the capricious nature of the people’s will as well as a close relationship between a referendum and bonapartism both demanding a parliamentary defense of minority rights and proper democracy.11
Another supporter of the referendum was the socialist party, which in 1989 proposed a presidential system with a strong president, a vice-president, and a direct election of the president. They especially strived to codify the direct election as a remedy for the admittedly limited legitimacy of the existing state-party political institutions like the Parliament and the government. As they argued, the ‘necessities’ of the democratic transition would have required an unquestionable authority established by a direct election. That is, they also used the rhetoric of immediate access to the people’s will, however, only in a narrow sense as redeeming the temporal state of illegitimacy of the political system.12
As there existed a kind of alliance between the populist discourse and the socialist pro tempore rhetoric both debating the newly established framework of representative democracy in 1990, in 1989 we witness a somewhat more complicated situation. For example in 1989 the opposition movements exploited an article of the socialist constitution that permitted to call representatives back via a referendum. Some opposition representatives were able to get into the old, state-socialist parliament substituting old communists. Similarly, a referendum (the so-called ‘four-yes referendum’) organized by certain opposition groups and resulting in a political defeat of the socialists in the autumn of 1989 made the socialists hold on to their favorite idea of a referendum on the direct election of the President. The ‘people’s will’ against the illegitimacy of the socialist regime was a widespread and popular political argument; it was much more popular than a year later.
To sum up, the concept of ‘people’ in a direct democratic sense played different roles in the various periods of the democratic transition. In the cloudy context of 1989 it offered as much a sort of a by-pass road to the socialists to retain their political political significance as a means to the opposition to destroy the socialist state. Later on it served to voice an opposition to the established form of the new democracy.
The outsider Although in the debate of the populist and representative discourses the model of a representative democracy seemed to be victorious over its rival, it does not follow that the need for conceptualization of ‘people’ lost any significance.
The process of the change of the political system was dominated alternately by legal and economic discourses, and a kind of legal turn, that is to say, a ‘constitutional revolution’ came about in 1989-1990,13 which, as we saw it, built up a classic and self-confident representative democracy excluding the participative forms as merely antidemocratic tendencies.
Meanwhile, a serious economic crisis unfolded with massive unemployment and growing inflation. As a response to the inability of the government, the first and last direct political mass movement was formed in October 1990 protesting against the sudden rise in the price of petrol. The immediate cause of the movement was the fact that a representative of the Ministry of Industry had vehemently denied the plans to raise the price of petrol just one day before it actually happened. The possibility of a ‘lie’ in the new, democratic system evoked a lively debate on the limits of representative democracy and opened up the space to the reconceptualization of the gap between ‘them’ (the politicians) and ‘us’ (the people) (see Bozóki 2003: 183-211 and Bihari 2005: 458).
This reconceptualization of ‘people’ as a mass of outsiders actually began already side by side with the democratic transition and it had its antecedents in the concept of the Kádárian ‘toiler’ who, as we saw it in Szabó’s essay (2006), was the apolitical counter-concept of the political subject of the socialist constitution, and paradoxically, the proper citizen of the Kádár regime, which tried to distance itself from the previous Stalinism overpoliticized everyday life and offered an apolitical way of life within the framework of socialism.
The democratic transition necessarily recontextualized the concept of ‘people’ as outsiders and in fact offered a number of ways to do this. The figure of ‘lovelorn’ (to quote an idiom of the publicists of the day) having ceased to trust in his or her representatives embodied in mass demonstrations in October 1990 was only one of these ways. There is a very interesting book written in 1990 but published only in 1991 that presented the variety of possible meanings of ‘people’ as outsiders (Horváth K. 1991).
This book was born when a leftist newspaper journalist set forth an appeal to his readers to answer his question: ‘What kind of a person is [Prime Minister] József Antall?” He received more than 200 letters from various people and these letters were indiscriminately published. Due to the political commitment of the newspaper a number of traditionally leftist people answered (e.g. a man who asserted that he was ’65 years old, a child of the Győri Vagongyár [a carriage factory in the town of Győr]. We are a family of peasants and later workers back to seventy seven generations. I was the first person with a secondary school degree in the family’), but the political views appearing in the book ranged from communist left-wing to anti-communist right-wing.
This book would be worth further study as a document of the oppressed forms of knowledge. For example, two people sent their own poems (!) pronouncing their opinion on the present state of affairs. Or, in a letter we can read a biography of the Prime Minister made up of different sources (most of the information seem to be a kind of recycling of mass media materials) with a lot of data familiar from newspapers, but apparently reshaped.
Nevertheless, it is enough for the moment to argue that in this book there appeared some self-consciously outsider variants of ‘people’. Almost every writer emphasized his or her poverty (either as workers or as persons oppressed under the communist rule) and independence from political parties (Antall fans as well as his critics). In this context parties became participants of a somewhat l’art pour l’art political activity and their members biased only to their parties’s interests. In contrast to them, ‘people’ as outsiders – and therefore not influenced by party interests – could clearly see the truth and could express in a simple way. This was especially the case if they were (economic or other kind of) experts because life was conceptualized as something happening around them.
This discourse was of course not unitary. Who liked Antall described him as an excellent, wise and civilized man who was beyond party conflicts and worked for the whole country. On the contrary, whoever disliked him said that he dealt only with himself and his party’s interests instead of the common issues.
We may consider this discourse as a populist one of the kind used by Király. However, this outsider variant of the concept of ‘people’ neither required any political participation of the people nor implied an immediate access to the people’s will. In this discourse the role a political could play depended on individual views expressed in the letters: the politicians were able to play their own game irrespective of peoples’ lives or they could make peoples’ lives better without listening to the people’s will. The emphasis was on the gap between outsiders and politician.
People as peasants In a debate on the coat of arms of the country14 in 1990, Miklós Borz, representative of the Smallholders’ Party related a story15 in which in a political gathering an old lady with a net-bag came to him and gave him a flag decorated with a crest with Holy Crown (one of the two versions of the historical coat of arms of the country) and told him that that flag was her husband’s property kept secretly during the whole communist rule. The old lady asked the MP to put that flag on the table when he was speaking in front of that gathering and added that his husband had always believed that the old coat of arms of the country would be restored.
The Smallholders’ MP described this story as his personal experience of the people’s feelings regarding the coat of arms of the country (“We should discuss on sentimental rather than scientific grounds what the Hungarian people want”16). In this sense it was a conceptualization of immediate access to the people’s will just like in the case of direct democracy. However, what differentiates the two cases is the specific characterization of ‘people’ as peasants in the present story. This is of course only one of the typical ways of speaking about people and we can reconstruct this characterization and collect of its elements.
First of all, ‘people’ as they appeared in the story live in the country. They are described sentimentally as a homogeneous mass of simple, poor, weak and old people who respect authorities (“An elderly peasant lady – around ninety years old – came to me. Not an heir of Máté Csák, but a peasant lady!”17) Furthermore, they experience the world primarily through their sentiments and express them in simple ways (“I ask everybody to consider before voting that the Hungarian people have sentiments”18). These ‘people’ are never ‘us’, only ‘them’ and ‘we’ have to visit them and understand their sentiments if we wish to represent them.
We can call this a kind of patriarchal conceptualization of ‘people’ in contrast to both the direct democratic and the outsider senses of the concept of ‘people’. In the context of the debate on the coat of arms of the country, it served as a specific way to understand the people’s views because the point of departure in this debate was an opposition between the strange communist crest and our own true, national variant, so the discussion crystallized around the problem of how we can find out what is properly our own. It was a further premise that the historical variant is our own but unfortunately there were more than one historical variants: the one with the Holy Crown over a crest and the one without it expressing ‘statehood’ and ‘revolutionary’ traditions of Hungarian national history. The story about the old lady was an argument for the variant with the Holy Crown.
This patriarchal discourse has a long tradition. For a long while, there existed a conceptual dichotomy between ‘nation’ (the political community possessing legal rights and originally containing only the privileged parts of the populace) and ‘people’ (the mass without rights, often described in the early nineteenth century as ‘misera plebs contribuens’, that is, the tax-paying poor people). In the early nineteenth century the liberal reformers launched a program to extend the political rights to the ‘people’19, and later that century the new conservatives criticized the capitalistic economy for destroying old patriarchal relationship between thenobility and the people substituting it for artificial economic dependence(Szabó 2003). Both of these groups viewed ‘people’ from above, and the liberal discourse of national literature (a very important contributor to national awakening) did the same. On the one hand, this discourse required a popular foundation for national culture, but on the other hand, it wished to ennoble this popular culture and exclude the worthless parts from it (this way it reduplicated the concept of ‘people’ as people and villainy) (Milbacher 2000). Later in the twentieth century there began a kind of ethnopopulist discourse that required a reconceptualization of ‘people’ through an extended exploration of popular culture and peoples’ lives in sociographic forms and radical political and social reforms20.
Each of these discourses shared some common presuppositions on the role of people as the ethnic substance of the Hungarian nation and in the nature of people that was often founded on sociological facts such as that ‘people’ are actually a mass of peasants. However, on the other hand there was a huge variety of possible conceptualizations dependent on political situations and programs that entailed different traditions of people as countryfolk. For the Smallholders’ Party – which was perhaps the oldest Hungarian movement founded in the 1930s with antecedents from the 1910s and which was grounded exactly on a conceptualization of peasants (as Smallholders) expressed through the triple slogan of ‘God, homeland, family’ – the MP’s story about the old lday was an expression not only of an argument for one of the different variants of the coat of arms of the country but also of the discursive identity of his party.21
This particular discursive tradition was originally of a double-faced nature. On the one hand it was by definition an opposition movement and represented people outside the political system and under the political elite. On the other it had a certain political loyalty towards the conservative political system of the 1930s and the formulation of ‘people’ in the context of conservative values appearing in the slogan of the party was a discursive means to fill the gap between loyalty and opposition.
Later on after the collapse of the conservative Horthy regime and before the communist rule there existed a short democratic period in which the Smallholders were the largest party due to their capacity to unify the moderate supporters of the previous regime as well as due to their image as an opposition party.22
In the early 1990 the new Smallholders’ Party was the heir to both this discursive identity and, as part of it, to a concept of ‘people’ in a patriarchal conceptualization as we saw in the story of the old lady. In its own specific way the tradition of ‘people’ as peasants could contribute to the political discourse of the democratic transition and was an implicit alternative to both ‘people’ as outsiders and ‘people’ as subjects of direct democracy.
Against ethnopopulism It is a widespread commonplace that among the factors of constructing the rival political identities of the new democracy we can find the so-called ‘populist vs. metropolitan debate’, a discursive legacy of the 1930s that was originally a debate with antisemitic connotations between the ethnically mixed metropolitan intellectuals of Budapest and the intelligentsia of the countryside discussing the proper meaning of Hungarianness. What was at stake was the place of metropolitan culture within Hungarian culture and the possibility of a characteristically ‘Hungarian’ political way (a kind of ‘third way’) in the context of the worldwide crisis of the ‘Western’ liberal democracy, and the double threat of the ‘Jewish’ communism and the ‘German’ nazism.23
Later during the communist regime, the ethnopopulistic discourse was in a relationship with communism that was somewhat similar to the relationship between the Smallholders’ identity and the previous conservative-nationalist political system.24 Being radically recontextualized within a political system which broke with the conservative social and ideological establishment in a revolutionary way, ethnopopulism might have taken the role of representing specifically Hungarian values against (as in the case of the 1956 revolution) or within (as in the 1950s or later in the 1960s and 1970s) the communist system.25 From the 1970s on, the ethnopopulistic discourse apparently infiltrated more and more into the discourses of the existing socialism as an inner opposition (or a specific stream) of the state party as well as a so-called ‘popular-national’ opposition. Ironically, ‘popular-national opposition’ was also at least partly a creation of the opposition policy of the communist party wishing to position itself between two extremisms thus recognizing a ‘popular-national’ opposition on the one side, and a ‘radical’ one (as a kind of heir of the town side of the populist vs. metropolitan debate) on the other side.
In the 1980s this dichotomy was recognized by the opposition groups themselves and to the first demonstrative (however small) political action of the opposition in Monor in 1985 already three separate groups were invited: the ‘popular-national’ one, the ‘democratic’ one and the so-called ‘reform economists’26. Furthermore, the two largest parties of the democratic transition were crystallized around ‘popular-nationalists’ (MDF – Hungarian Democratic Forum) and the ‘democratic opposition’ (Alliance of Free Democrats) and this fact together with the one that within the state party there was a serious ‘popular-national’- stream entailed a very complicated interplay between discourses and political interests, from which there followed mutual accusations of cryptocommunism, antisemitism, and false accusations of antisemitism.
We have seen above that in 1990 a powerful defense of representative democracy prevailed both over a direct democratic challenge and an antipolitic outsider concept of ‘people’. In this context, the replay of the ‘populist vs. metropolitan debate’ as the ‘popular-national’ and ‘democratic opposition’ dichotomy was closely connected to a silent critique of the fast professionalization of politics from the former popular-national side (as a legacy of the ‘third way’) and a denial of any alternative of the Western way of representative democracy from the former democratic opposition.
Later this popular-national critique strengthened as MDF gradually got a more conservative facade due to the Prime Minister’s own political views and in the early 1990s a dissenting group within MDF formed an independent ‘national radical’ party requiring a ‘Hungarian way’ against worldwide Western ‘globalization’.27 Rather than an immediate heir to the whole ‘popular-national’ tradition of the 1980s, this movement was a reconceptualization of the very broad and heterogeneous ethnopopulistic discourse in the context of a new representative democracy, globalization and an extension of capitalism. Among other things, it resulted in a conspiracy theory narrative of the democratic transition along with the dichotomy of ‘alien’ interests and ‘Hungarian’ people being outside the power. In all likelihood, it was a rethinking of the content and great names (as points of reference) of that discursive tradition as well as its own antecedent or past.
Similarly, the ‘ populist vs. metropolitan debate’ was reconsidered from the viewpoint of the former ‘democratic transition’ that tried to break the close relations between the concept of ‘people’ and the ‘popular-national’ movement. As we can see it in a book published in 1993 (‘The future of our past: Liberals on popular legacy’ [Fekete 1993]), members of the former democratic opposition called themselves ‘liberals’ (and as such pro-capitalists and supporters of representative democracy) and they strived to rethink the ‘populist’ legacy from their own point of view.
Their point of departure was the abovementioned fact that nineteenth-century liberalism was already thematizing the dichotomy of ‘people’ and ‘nation’ in order to emancipate ‘people’ both in a cultural and a social sense. To remind the readers of this fact was a kind of statement of claim for the proper access to people.
In subsequent chapters the authors tried to destroy the traditional populist conceptualization of ‘people’ in order to underpin a liberal interpretation. For example, the great historian, Miklós Szabó wrote (Fekete 1993: 63-74) a history of ideas of the different formulations of the national character embodied in the people (he distinguished the people as ‘shepherds’ image with the connotations of primitive liberty, martial virtues, and nomadism of the late nineteenth century and the proper populist image of people as ‘peasants’ referring to an ahistorical, natural, simple and oppressed mass). A famous aesthete, Sándor Radnóti wrote that in the 1990s popular culture like folk poetry did not exist any more, and the examples of the ‘popular-national’ literature were in fact the products of high culture (Fekete 1993: 107-112).
Finally, it is noteworthy that in an essay by Ágnes Háy the metropolitan ‘poetry of the streets’ was presented as the proper form of folk poetry or popular culture of those days (Fekete 1993: 147-156). This essay attacked on the traditional distinction between town and country, which had been the point of departure of the whole populist vs. metropolitan debate.
Whether this liberal enterprise was successful or not is a question beyond the scope of this essay. But the existence of such a liberal experiment to rethink and acquire the popular tradition has been an important event in the history of the political discourse of the early 1990s.
Palimpsest To conclude, we may argue that the concept of ‘people’ was a kind of palimpsest of several ways of conceptualizations of ‘people’ dependent on various discursive traditions and exploited in different contexts for a number of different purposes.
The five types (popular sovereignty, direct democracy, outsider, peasant, populist vs. metropolitan) discussed here are junctions around which traditions and interests crystallized. They were phenomena of the ongoing activity of politically speaking as well as concepts within the discourse that offered both specific ways of conducting discourse and specific horizons of political activity. Hence their significance points beyond the debates into which they were embedded.
Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to argue that from the perspective of the concept of ‘people’ we could outline a short (even if somewhat particular) discursive history of the democratic transition, too.
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