Regime Change » Zsolt K. HORVÁTH, historian, faculty member of the ELTE-BTK Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, 1972
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Zsolt K. HORVÁTH, historian, faculty member of the ELTE-BTK Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, 1972

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What role did the regime change play in your professional career?

As I graduated high school in 1990, the experience of the regime change influenced my choices both directly and indirectly. As of 1988, it was apparent to me even as a high school student that teachers didn’t believe in the ideological apparatus of state socialism. It was possible to ignore certain regulations and – although there were some restrictions – engage in experimentation. It was especially entertaining to witness as a student the general ideological perplexity and cluelessness with which the year of 1989 descended on Hungarian adult society. We often interpret the story of the regime change as a logical development of successive events, coordinated by certain groups of the intellectual opposition and a weakening state. The way I remember, however, is that confusion and uncertainty ruled the streets. Today, I would describe the weakening of norms and regulatory systems as anomie. The new rules – which, if they came at all, followed much later –nobody observed. At the time my feeling was that we, as 17-18 year olds, were much quicker to grasp the patterns and laws of the reality that was forming around us, which, of course, as students, we exploited to our advantage. (For instance, if I was skipping school I would say that I was putting up posters. Since I was wearing a party badge on my jacket, my teacher, after giving me a puzzled glance, would verify my absence.) All this is significant only insofar as my witnessing the collapse of a system that no one thought would come to such an end; the experience of – and the certainty that comes from – living through this transition led me to the belief that yes, it was possible to change the world through ideas, thoughts and action. If I didn’t think this, I would have never become a social researcher and never would have engaged in activism.

 

 

What cornerstone events or publications in art / politics / public life / the professional sphere do you remember, and which of these influenced you, directly or indirectly? Through what channels and from what sources have you received your knowledge about this period?

At that time, I did not frequent professional events yet, but I was interested in both public-political and art (taken in a wider sense of the word) events. Of the former, I acquired my information primarily from the papers (my parents were subscribers to a lot of daily and weekly papers), and, to some extent, from television. From the time I became an activist in support of a party, I also was privy to some inside information, and attended political events as well. When I became a university student, we engaged in serious political debates, we were constantly reading the papers. My friends and I were quite biased. We had near-violent arguments following the so-called Kónya–Pető debate on the question of justice. It was also at this time that anti-Semitist sentiments became an issue in the hallways of the university. At that point (also) I took this to be a horrible, even frightening, omen – not only the anti-Semitism itself, but, even more so, the fact that I had never before encountered such inexplicable hate. This filled me with fear.

Concerning art, there was an important turning point: the publication of Szógettó [Word Ghetto] in 1989. Till then, my friends and I had only heard legends of the Hungarian Neo-Avantgarde (and I had also seen two Miklós Erdély film and other Balázs Béla Studio productions in high school). The texts in Szógettó completely overwhelmed me, especially stuff by Tamás Szentjóby, Tibor Hajas and Gergely Molnár. The URH concert in the autumn of 1990 was also a defining happening for me (we had “grown up” on Kontroll Csoport, Európa Kiadó, Bizottság, and Sexepil), where underground music somehow – for the time being – intersected with the opposition. This meant a lot to me then. It was also around this period that the festivals began. The international theatre festival organized by the 8:15 Group in Szeged was one of the most memorable of these, with lots of concerts and programs. The periodical culture which developed after 1989 was also wonderful to experience. We were able to see, hear, and read a host of things that had not reached Hungary before then.  So, until about 1992, my experience of the new system was rather positive. The hopes of the regime change were preserved for a while within university circles, even if the above mentioned warning signs were already making their appearance. I/we did not yet feel the weight of what was to take place in economics and social politics as a result of the privatization process. My private sphere was, for a short while longer, protected by the containment of university life and my middle class family background.

 

Has your picture of the regime change and its ideas been altered – if yes, in what way, and as a result of what – in the past 10 / 5 / 1 year(s)?

My opinion of the regime change began to change around 1999-2000. This was no doubt partly due to the fact that I began to spend longer periods of time in France, on various scholarships. The political culture I experienced there fundamentally transformed my manner and provided me with new impetus for recovering from my disappointment regarding the non-productivity that characterized the decade following the regime change. It was around that time that Miklós Tamás Gáspár’s essay entitled “The Short Way Out of Hungarian Politics” was published in ÉS, which articulated the very same feeling. In his later writings he continued to articulate a system of criteria that was new to Hungary. Instead of artificially isolating politics and economics, he showed close connections between the conditions of democracy and capitalism. He was an advocate of leftwing social critique. It was then that I began to read leftwing authors who engaged in the critique of capitalism – still a topic of intense disdain in Hungary – which would have been unthinkable for me to do just after the regime change. And although I had already been acquainted with Bourdieu, Foucault, Boltanski, and then Wacquant, David Harvey and others, it was at this point in time that the works of these authors really began to speak to me. In this sense, the failure of the regime change – which by today is apparent to all – came as no surprise. In fact, in many respects, I see it as a consequence of the sociopolitical unpreparedness and naiveté of the new elite, as well as the escalation of the above mentioned anomic situation.


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