Interview with the Chairman of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (part 1 of 2)

In this first of two parts, Gyula Thürmer sits down with Eben Williams to discuss the history of socialism in Hungary, the situation of the Hungarian people, and his memories of working under Prime Minister János Kádár.
In this first of two parts, Gyula Thürmer sits down with Eben Williams to discuss the history of socialism in Hungary, the situation of the Hungarian people, and his memories of working under Prime Minister János Kádár.
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On 23 August, a delegation of Young Communist League and Communist Party of Britain members were invited to meet with leading members of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, at their offices in Budapest. The following interview was with the Party’s Chairman, Gyula Thürmer.

EW: Hello, Mr. Thürmer, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. If you could start by introducing yourself and your party for anyone who doesn’t know.  

GT: You are guests of the Hungarian Workers’ Party. Our party has existed since 1989, refounded after the collapse of socialism. At that time, I had the honour of being elected President of the party, and since that time, I have worked as its Chairman or President. The Hungarian Workers’ Party is a communist party, a Marxist party, a party which tries to follow Lenin’s idea of analysing concrete situations to come to new, concrete conclusions.

We are not members of the so-called ‘mainstream’. We are swimming against the mainstream, but nevertheless, due to the efforts of the communists of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, we continue living and fighting.

EW: Thank you. My first question is about what life was like under Hungarian socialism. It’s obviously a very big question, but what are the biggest differences you see since 1989?

GT: You know, the Hungarian people lived under socialism for more than 40 years, and more than 30 years have passed since then. Hungarian people remember the socialist period, and as we face a new economic, political, and general crisis, a lot of people not only begin to remember, but to reconsider their opinions of the socialist period.

What did socialism mean to the Hungarian people? First of all, Hungary lived for 40 years in peace. We didn’t have to join any wars during that time. After the collapse of socialism and after joining NATO, we were immediately participating in some war or another. We spent 20 years in Afghanistan, our soldiers were in the Balkans in Kosovo, and we’re currently preparing for Russia. People understand that, yes, we have lost our peaceful existence.

Secondly, socialism gave people a secure life, a secure job, a secure salary. When young people finished university, they knew that on the first of September, they would have a job in some company or ministry. Now, nobody can be sure. Security in the questions of everyday life has been lost. This is a monumental problem. 

Thirdly, socialism contributed to the development of the Hungarian people and the Hungarian economy. Hungary was a poor country before the Second World War; during the socialist decades, Hungary developed a robust economy, agriculture, and a good national industry. Now we’ve practically lost it all. 

Thirty years ago, we had twelve sugar factories, producing for our domestic needs. Socialism collapsed or more accurately, was destroyed, and all the factories were immediately bought up by Austrians and Germans. Now, if you want to put some sugar in your coffee, you’ll use Austrian or German sugar. It’s the same with beer, oil, and goods. Go to any supermarket in Hungary today, you’ll see that 70-80% of the products are coming from Great Britain, Germany, or somewhere else abroad.

Perhaps British people know something about the famous Hungarian Ikarus buses. The Ikarus bus factory was one of the largest in Europe during the 20th century. It produced 13,000 buses every year and was a real competitor for Scania, Mercedes and other companies. Of course, it was destroyed and now we don’t produce a lot of the things we need for ourselves.

I think that the standard of living of the Hungarian people under socialism was perfectly good. As the leader of Hungarian socialism, János Kádár used to say: “we could give an acceptable standard of living to the Hungarian people.” It maybe wasn’t as high as that experienced by some people in Western countries, but then again, you didn’t have to work as much. Socialism meant that there weren’t big differences between the low-paid and high-paid categories. For example, the director of a company would take a salary, at most, six times greater than a driver of that company. Nowadays, you’d be mad to even compare the two. 

Capitalism meant an enormous difference between them, and I think that these are the things that people are now beginning to realise. This is the reason that the capitalist forces are launching a very heavy attack against the communist idea and the communist process. You could say that the spectre of communism is going around Hungary and Europe.

I think that if there were no ghost of socialism, then there would be no need of the ruling class to enact laws against it. In Hungary, you cannot wear the red star. Our party is a communist party, but we cannot officially use the name ‘communist’ because it is prohibited. The word “communist” cannot be used in the names of public organisations. There are no legal processes against communist forces, nobody has been sent to prison, but at the same time, we see 100% isolation from the media. If you start to say something about socialism, they will halt you immediately. Nonetheless, I believe that generally, the people remember the positive elements of socialism.

EW: So, do Hungarians miss socialism? Do they want to go back?

GT: You know, 30 years ago, the Hungarian people were manipulated. At that time, nobody spoke about a change of social system. Nobody spoke about capitalism, nobody even used the word “capital”. Everybody spoke about Europe, the free market economy, democracy, peace… Everybody wanted peace in Europe, the world, a market economy, and everybody wanted to show that we could live better than we did during the socialist period, and the people believed it. People believed that we would live in the European Union and Europe more generally, just like the Austrians or the Germans lived. But now, what are the facts?

We are already more than 30 years into capitalism, but the difference between the Austrian or German standard of living and the Hungarian standard of living has only grown, not shrunk. We now have Austrian prices, but still have Hungarian salaries. It’s a problem, you know, and people understand it. That’s one thing.

The second is that at that time, people thought that if there was democracy, they would have the right to criticise everything. We could go out on the streets and we could speak our opinions about János Kádár. Yes, they got that right. You can, indeed, go out onto the street and you can criticise János Kádár, you can criticise socialism, but you cannot criticise the current Prime Minister, you cannot criticise capitalism, and so on. You cannot criticise NATO, naturally. It’s a prohibited question.

People at that time were misled to believe that, if there was democracy and we had problems with the state, we could turn to the legal system, to the courts. If you had problems under socialism, you could turn to a local facility, to the local council, to the Party body, to the trade union, and somebody would be there to help you. Now, nobody helps. Yes, you can now go to court, if you can pay for a lawyer. But this process is very, very difficult and nobody defends you under capitalism.

Our opinion is that, as Marxists say, there is currently no revolutionary situation. This means that the people, the majority of the people, can live how they live now. They don’t want to change it fundamentally, radically… They may privately criticise it, have their concerns, they have problems with this way of life, but good, it will change nothing and the government and the political elite can govern the country without difficulty. 

In 2010, there was a change in Hungary. Before 2010 we had a social-democratic liberal government in Hungary and they faced the consequences of the American crisis in 2008. The results for Hungary were mass unemployment, radical inflation, and a host of other miseries, and it was clear that the social-democratic liberal government could not maintain or stabilise capitalism by peaceful means. That’s why the ruling class needed a new government: the current one. It’s a conservative one but they played a clever trick. They practically took our Party newspaper, the communist newspaper, and they tried to realise our program. They understand that you should give something to the people, and this government gives a lot to the people, to families, to young people, and to the older generation. They don’t give as much as our Party would if we were in power and they don’t give as much as the people really need, but they give enough to keep their mouths shut, to make them compliant and not start demonstrations or go on strike.

However, this appeasement can only go so far, until the pressure of events changes the situation. The first reason is the war. Great Britain is far from Ukraine, but we are very near. Hungarian people live in Ukraine, we know what we need and people feel that now. They feel the economic consequences of the war and are afraid that we will become involved in the war. And if the war becomes a World War, then naturally, everything will change. 

The second is the problem of migration. So far, the government has stopped migration to Hungary, but the European Union has insisted that Hungary should admit all migrants. But we have our own minority problem. Among the 10 million Hungarians, we have about 1 million Roma, the Gypsy population, as well as others that are not really integrated into Hungarian society. This means that we don’t need other forces of migration.

And the third element which could change the situation is the collapse of the European Union. We see now that the walls of the European house are not as stable as they were a few years ago, and that it is always the weakest members that lose. Great Britain could solve this problem. They left the European Union, said, “Goodbye, we’re going over to the Americans and we’re going to live very well.” But Hungary? Where should we go?

What this means is that if the conditions change, we can come to a revolutionary situation which can radicalise the frustrations of the people. And that’s why what we are doing now is preparing our young people and our party for the possibility of change, and we teach them how to work under these new circumstances. I don’t know how it is in Great Britain, but we see that our young comrades are accustomed to smartphones. They discuss things with each other online and don’t like to speak face-to-face, but if the revolution comes, we should speak with the people face-to-face. We should relearn how to organise meetings on the streets, and this is what we do. How to organise meetings against the war, how to distribute leaflets, books, and so on. This is our understanding of the situation. 

EW: You worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Kádár government, is that right? What was János Kádár like as a leader? 

GT: Yes, I was a member of the former Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and I worked as a diplomat. I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and spent some years at the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, and in 1980, I worked in the International Department of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party.

You should understand that the political centre of the governing party is the main basis of power and the International Department is an important element of that system. My job was to deal with the Soviet Union and the other countries of the Warsaw Pact, our main allies at that time. Due to the obvious importance of this task, this area of work was usually controlled by János Kádár himself, so we had everyday contact during consultations, meetings, conferences. and so on. In 1985, I was named his assistant for international affairs and I worked in this capacity under him.

What can I say about him? You know, János Kádár was a principled man, absolutely committed to the idea of socialism, as he believed that socialism was the solution for poverty, for peace, for national questions, and so on. And when he was the leader of the party, nobody could speak about a change of social system and going over to capitalism. That’s why the counter-revolutionaries ousted him in 1988, but during his time, it was impossible to change the system. 

Secondly, he was no theoretician. He didn’t write swathes of books or read essays, but he absolutely was a cogent political specialist who could analyse the development and processes. He was of the opinion that socialism must be constructed in accordance with the national circumstances of the country. One of the mistakes of Hungarian socialism before 1956 was that we tried to mimic the Soviet model. You know, a Soviet-made suit can be beautiful, and a very good one, but perhaps it just doesn’t fit the Hungarian people. The Soviet model didn’t fit the circumstances of Hungary.

That’s why, towards the end of his life, when we were working together in China in ‘87 and met Deng Xiaoping, it was like there were these two old men who could absolutely understand each other. Socialism doesn’t mean poverty, socialism means a better life for everybody and we should figure out how to give them this. That’s why, when we returned from Beijing, went to Moscow, and had a meeting with Gorbachev, he told him that he’d visited China, that he believed the Chinese people, that they were making something new. It was very “Chinese-like”, but it was socialism. Unfortunately, Gorbachev didn’t follow his advice.

Kádár was very modest. His house was not a castle, he loved everyday Hungarian food, good Hungarian soup, nothing fancy. He was also a very disciplined leader. It was very interesting that it took a long time to gain his confidence. You met him and he tried to analyse you, he seemed to almost weigh you up. Our first meeting was in 1977. I was an interpreter at the time, and I could sense that even though I was a very small name in the party, János Kádár was following my life, my experience, and he said that it was very important that we should have men of talent and discipline. I think he was a leader who demanded a lot from his colleagues, sometimes the impossible, but there is a saying that you can do impossible things if you want to. He really worked very hard. I think he was a real communist and during the evenings when we visited Moscow or other countries, he usually gathered some comrades together and we would sit and listen to him. It was his way of teaching the younger generation. Not everybody had ears to understand him, but those who had good ears could learn a lot. I personally gained a lot from that experience.

The second part of this interview can be found here.

Eben Williams is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

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