Lőrincz D. József (1956-2021)

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utolsó frissítés: 2021.04.29

Ambivalent Discourse in Eastern Europe, in Regio. A Review of Studies on Minorities, Politics, and Societies, 2004.

Ambivalent discourse in Eastern Europe

Ambivalent discourse in Eastern Europe


In spite of the fact that there seems to be a consensus over the fact that transition in Eastern Europe is – at least from an institutional point of view – over, on the level of everyday life this is more difficult to prove. In the context of East European transitions, one of the major questions refers to the way this process, the events, the decisions are interpreted in everyday life. How do the values of the new political economic system become internalised, what is the legitimacy of the political, economic, social ideals, of the short-term plans proposed by the elite. This depends only partly – and not always – on the activity, the performance of the opinion leaders. Both before, and after 1989 they first of all tried to take over "Western" models and adapt them to local conditions. An attitude, a practice difficult to adopt, follow in everyday life. Here improvisation guided by the rule of the thumb seems to have been in favour over model- or ideology-driven activity, discourse. Even if improvisation is often without a larger perspective, and frequently leading to disappointments. The success of the opinion leaders in their endeavours is often facilitated or, on the contrary, obstructed either by certain predispositions that developed historically, or by the constraints of everyday life.

Internalisation presupposes polarisations, oppositions, and sometimes options that in common life have to be dissolved somehow by the individuals or groups. Good and bad (evil), merit and need, private enterprise and public fairness, ideals and pragmatism, as well as many others, are choices everybody has to make. In everyday life one either suspends the tension between dichotomous, or dichotomously understood values, or develops frames of interpretation that make cohabitation with their contradictions possible. More specifically, in modernising Eastern Europe the polarisation between "us" and "them", or between the private and the public sphere took certain local, specific variations.  For example both before and after 1989 the tension between the "official" and the "non-official" sphere, or between "our" and "their" ethnic (national) group used to be – and still is – of major importance. Even if their meaning has changed over time. The point is not their importance in some sort of "worldwide politics", but that they have been important in everyday life, determining the behaviour of common people, how they saw the world, their place in it, and their identity.

The pragmatic dissolution of conflicts usually requires that the respective individual, community transform the system of values and norms that was until then perceived as valid and coherent. This usually involves a considerable effort, but also a discomfort, since such changes endanger the real or assumed coherence of our image of the world and of ourselves. The question is the following: what happens, if – due to different causes – the reconciliation of the various polarities is hindered over a long period of time[1] by the lack of legitimate institutional forms that could promote such a compromise. How does such a situation effect upon the values of everyday life, the conduct of individuals? Do they try to dissolve the tension of conflicts, and if/when this is the case, how?

As a first approach, Katherine Verdery's theory will be discussed about the East European subject's split identity, which led, according to her, to an incoherence in values and norms of behaviour. It will be shown that in this region, in everyday life, such a polarised identity does not always result in chaos, or in moral double standards, but often in a coherent, pragmatic lifestyle that is validated by the everyday social milieu. Some examples will be presented of the practice of trespassing between official, dominant and "oppositional" discourse, as developed in state socialism. These will be treated on the one hand as forms of silence and struggle with silence, and on the other hand as "pedagogical" exercises. The thesis will be demonstrated with the analysis of the (quasi-)oppositional discourse developed in Transylvanian Hungarian circles. Three examples will be given: some poems allegedly written for children by Sándor Kányádi before 1989, the activity of the Party Committee for Supervising Performances (based on the minutes of this body), and an artistic performance "in honour" of the Romanian Communist Party's 60th anniversary. The conclusion will try to connect the problem of ambivalent discourse to that of parrhesia.

According to the most interesting interpretation of the ethnic conflicts that erupted after 1989 in Eastern Europe, their roots can be traced back to the bipolar personality structure characteristic of communism. According to Katherine Verdery[2], communism dichotomised the moral, political, social world, by constructing a totally antagonistic enemy for itself (the enemy of the state, of the people, of the regime, etc.). Even if this worldview was not accepted by everybody, this dichotomization came to be also the mechanism by which the subjects' identities were formed and reproduced. However, quite apart from the expectations of the regime, the "others" from whom they differentiated themselves in everyday life were not the "capitalists", "the West", or the "internal enemies", but the official elite itself, official rhetoric, culture, etc. The "us" developed exactly in opposition with these. Values became turned upside down in the private sphere, and the positive values of the power became evil, and vice-versa. This self could not be affirmed in public, so the identity of East European subjects was characterised by a certain duplicity: there was a "public self" that presented itself according to the requirements formulated by the power, and there was a "real self", usually secluded into private life. But the real self, since it was built up in opposition with the public self, depended in its coherence on the official self. Bipolarity became constitutive of a social person. The end of the previous regime provoked a crisis of self-conception, since the "them" against whom their self had been constituted, disappeared. Nevertheless, Verdery says, the bipolar mechanism of identity-construction still works, since it has become part of the social person, and even after 1989, new dichotomies have been created. The real self already needed a "them" against whom to maintain itself. The new "other" – according to Verdery – came to be the stranger, and especially the different ethnic groups. This is the real cause of post-1989 nationalism.

Bipolarity can certainly explain nationalism, the ongoing creation of borders, and many other – more or less – intolerantly self-constituting practices. But this statement should be qualified in two important respects.[3] On the one hand, the private/public dichotomy was not so polarised. For Verdery the two spheres are sealed off from each other, there is only antagonism. Such a position – labelled "liberal" by Benn and Gaus[4] – can be attacked in several ways: first, from a somewhat historical relativist point of view, it can be shown that the boundaries between public and private change in time; second, they can interpenetrate (or maybe even become identical); third, there are cultures that do not have these spheres, or they have different meanings. Moreover, the extreme variety of viewpoints also suggests that the distinctions used in the academic disciplines themselves are equivocal themselves.[5]

As far as our case is concerned, two observations are needed. On the one hand, it is hardly debatable that in this region the two spheres have existed, they are recognised in everyday life as more or less separate entities. But the point is not their interpenetration (as if the Communists penetrated, governed every part of the private world), but the fact that the values of the private sphere were frequently used in the public one, and vice versa. The frame of reference of one sphere could be used to interpret situations in the other one. Hence, from an external point of view ambiguity, ambivalence. On the other hand, further investigations should take it into consideration that the borders between the two have changed a great deal in the last period.[6]

Without a proper description of how the public sphere worked, and how it was linked to the private, one is stuck in a manichean world not resembling the real one. It is impossible to give here an overarching presentation of the (Romanian or Transylvanian) public and private sphere, and of their relationship. Or how "time" solved the problems caused by polarisations. Our question is linked only to their problematic nature, to how this complex connection was resolved, since the dichotomy of their moral world was not perfect. It seems that in spite of polarisation many actions, situations could not be included, rationalised according to a strict bipolar value system. Everyday actions, situations were much more inconsistent. In many cases the aim of rationalisation was to evade bipolar evaluations, or to play them off against each other. Many issues were rationalised indeed, but rationalised away. Strangely enough, it was exactly this logical inconsistency that helped people develop a personality that was valid and consistent from their own point of view, which strove to correlate the private and the public into a more or less unitary whole (in spite of logical inconsistencies), a personality which was both morally, and pragmatically acceptable and made sense to themselves. Consequently, the development and reproduction of an acceptable personality demanded that the tension between public and private be somehow resolved.

The most important consequence of this mechanism is that values, frames of interpretation became extremely context-bound. Due to this situation, from the point of view of the external observer the behaviour, mentality of "East Europeans" is in many cases incoherent, hard to understand, or often outside common morality. This is actually a major point in Katherine Verdery's argument, but she considers that this is a result of "socialist identity structure":

"Self-actualisation in socialist Romania seems to me [...] to have been much more situationally determined than North Americans find acceptable, such that people could say one thing in one context and another in another context and not be judged deceitful or forgetful or mad."[7]

However, while we both note the same phenomenon, the conclusions we draw diverge. Verdery thinks that this is sign of a divided self, while in the following it will be argued that often (but not always!) efforts are made in everyday life at reuniting somehow these selves and creating an acceptable whole – even if unsuccessfully, from an external point of view. That is, they failed in creating a coherent, consistent value system, behaviour and mentality.

In everyday life a whole array of events, actions, situations could not (and cannot) be rationalised according to a bipolar, coherent system of values. Roles, frames of interpretation were not stiffly pinned down. Ambivalence could mean for example the procedures by which one could distance oneself from the official role. The roles of "us" and "them" – that of the "bureaucrat" and of the "common person", a petitioner for example – offered actually remarkable space for free manoeuvres. Minimal gestures, winks, one or two seemingly negligent, "unorthodox" expressions helped one exhibit a different image of oneself. Or take for example a Hungarian party official who helped a co-national acquire a flat. This was not considered by him/her just as an official procedure in which he/she took part as an anonymous bureaucrat, but often as a personal act, implying that it was help offered on the basis of national solidarity. (Even if a bribe was accepted. It could be accepted from a Romanian applicant as well. In this case, the gesture could be rationalised either as a necessity imposed from above, or as understanding toward a person in a difficult situation, this making nationality irrelevant, making one feel more "objective", "tolerant", "humane".) This, or similar acts became very important constitutive elements of one's self-image. They were again and again told, repeated in private circles. In this case, role distancing took place not only within the institution itself, but outside too.[8] In many situations, they tried to convey their role within the institution a meaning that was part of another system of values. In that case, he/she was not only an apparatchik, but a Hungarian, or just a "decent human being" ("rendes ember") as well. It should be stressed that there was a whole array of frames aiming at making the two compatible. And thus such a system of double (or even multiple) standards in evaluating actions involved – and still involves – no cognitive dissonance. Just like in the case of devoted Christians who can be thieves as well; it did not complicate one's life, but simplified it, helped at the constitution of an identity acceptable for oneself. The frames of interpretation did not tend to consistency according to general values, norms. On the contrary, they were used according to situations, actions, persons. One should consider that usually, in everyday life, people faced bureaucrats of a low, or a middle rank. The aim of the relationship was usually to make an application, understood as a bargain. The refusal was often explained by the bureaucrat with the "situation", with the harshness of rules, thus transmitting a personal responsibility to the rules, the laws, to higher officials, or even to the regime. Thus, evaluations often tended to be combined: one could be a "Hungarian, but nevertheless a Communist pig" (in the case of a refusal), or "a Communist, but still a decent person, a good Hungarian" (in the case of a successful bargain). Both were rather common expressions.

In the following, some elements of the practice of trespassing between official and unofficial, permitted and forbidden talk will be presented that were developed during state socialism.

Ambivalent discourse: official, dominant, oppositional

The silence of the intellectuals and the silence of power

In his essays written on the social history of silence, Peter Burke considers it equally important with speech, since knowing when and how to keep silent is just as relevant as when and what to say.[9] The issue at hand is neither silence as a rhetorical device – so much used in literary or argumentative works[10] –, nor silence resulting from a personal free decision, but institutionally defined silence. Its meaning may vary according to place, time, the speaker, but from the point of view of our problem the public is the most important.

The silence, inactivity of the intellectuals before 1989 was often at least as visible as their public activity. It was salient, and it was frequently discussed about in private circles. The activity of the intellectuals, their "life in a calling" under an official aegis, was doubled by inactivity, silence concerning the regime, a silence as obvious as the public side of their activity. It was obvious because it was expected, and it was often as much talked about as their actions. Expression and silence were both notorious, part of the pre-1989 social world. And both were linked not only to their "mission", but also to a certain "pragmatism".

Actually, before 1989 in Eastern Europe one has to differentiate among at least three types of "silence". The first was the taken for granted of the public space, the unspoken common background of knowledge that is the basis of any communication.[11] Moreover, in Eastern Europe this made also possible the transmission of certain information behind the censorship. This was rather difficult to control, although the cultural bureaucrats did their best. The second was a voluntary silence, which had reasons that require no particular development here. The third type consisted of an involuntary silence. This could not be broken even in the most hidden spheres of private life, because it was due not to interdiction, but to the lack of intellectual, conceptual means, tools necessary for a properly argued critical account of society. The gestures of power, aimed at securing its own validity – i. e. that it is willy-nilly accepted, even if it is not considered legitimate! –, received in response also gestures, even while it was contested. In this case, "gestures" had to replace analysis.

It is a common mistake – probably due to the theories of totalitarianism – that the motivation of the Eastern European power's rhetoric in the 1970's and 1980's is identified with that of the 1950's. The two phases were totally different. In the first period of Communist rule, at least part of the political elite hoped that they could slowly convince the population that their cause was just, and best suited for everybody. But in the last 15–20 years (more or less), the apparatus lost its confidence in the just character (and the viability) of its ideological programme. Consequently, the function of the rhetoric changed radically: it was not any more to convince, to "enlighten", to explain, to mobilise.[12] The very fact that it could say whatever it wanted, without being obliged to pay attention to the possibility of being refuted (by "reality", or by a generally hostile public opinion) demonstrated that the position of power was strong, it could not have been challenged, and (almost) nobody had the courage to disprove it. But those resorting to this type of discourse knew very well that nobody believed them. And this was a major characteristic of their power: they could say anything, without anybody believing it, and also without anybody having the power to challenge it. They could allow themselves a unique luxury: they did not care what people thought or believed. Word was not manipulation, but a rubber truncheon waved at everybody. A gesture.

Talk about "reality" (i. e. what was seen, experienced as reality in everyday life) was prohibited. Even for the power, not only for the subjects. But this type of discourse that had no connection with reality was not typical only of the "official" elite. The "opposition" was also free of the obligation to demonstrate, to mediate toward the world of practicalities: the gesture was important, not the ideas, arguments, or concrete proposals. This is demonstrated by the fact that after a period of triumph, practically all the widely spread pre-1989 oppositional topics disappeared from the public sphere.

Tricks used to avoid silence

Totalitarian society seems to be the ideal terrain where the Gramscian concept of hegemony, respectively the division between dominant and popular culture can be successfully used. In the following, it will be showed that the distinction polarising these two cultural spheres in not valid in the context discussed here.

First of all, power – including the "socialist" period – never creates culture, but only proposes, tries to enforce a cultural model, since it does not produce culture as such. Accordingly, before 1989 power did not produce any "socialist culture". The question is how the elite reacted to the demands of the power. On the whole, one can say that the reactions were complex. The elite accepted it, adapted it, gave it form, mediated it, reproduced it: but only partly, in some (more or less numerous and important) of its aspects. Socialist culture was created by the intellectual (first of all humanistic elite) that gave form to certain ideas, plans, values formulated by the power elite. But definitely, the public sphere was not completely moulded by the official ideal even in the darkest years. A thorough interpretation of the whole social reality (including the private sphere) according to the official model was never achieved in the whole public sphere.[13] If one considers topics from the point of view of permission, three variants can be distinguished. Beside elements that were usually neutral (love[14], nature, etc.), there were others that in certain periods, for certain reasons were more or less tolerated for different reasons. And there was a third category of topics, ideas that were completely forbidden. The boundary between these realms was often arbitrary, usually not fixed, and liable to change, for different reasons that are not of interest here.[15] The discourse and the issues that are really important are those in the intermediate, "tolerated" category, because this can help one distinguish between dominant and official culture. The latter is just the model proposed by the power, and its eventual "perfect" presentations, adaptations. The former is much more than that, it tries to raise, circulate issues that are even if not encouraged, at least tolerated.[16] Part of this category is discourse that tries to present forbidden issues by encrypting the text, by demanding the public to read between the lines.

This type of ambivalent discourse – probably commonly used in most regimes without the freedom of speech by authors with unorthodox views – is one of the major examples of the difference between official and dominant culture.[17] It may vary in form, the most common techniques being a. the presentation of the issue as a tolerated one; b. the opinion of the ideological "opponent" is presented accurately, objectively, maybe even sympathetically, but then it is "refuted", as an "inimical" view; c. brutal insertions of orthodox passages into a non-orthodox work[18]; d. perfect self-encryptions where the piece is a unitary whole[19].

A whole range of tricks used in order to avoid censorship is presented by Sándor Tóth in his work on Gábor Gaál, a Hungarian leftist philosopher from Transylvania. While the official ideologists, the censorship wanted to monopolise and distort his message, his personality, his disciples and friends did their best to prevent this. During the fifties, he says, it was common to introduce references to the "Soviet example", especially after 1953. This was possible, even if the Romanian party apparatus did not want to de-Stalinise.[20] Another possibility – when proposing the publication of a book – was to hail it as a work putting in practice Zhdanov's criteria about "good literature", although the real goal was just to publish a good book that probably had nothing in common with the above mentioned criteria.[21] Usually the papers, reviews had to introduce texts showing their loyalty to the party and its programme. However, it was possible to make such texts so distinct – by printing them separately, at the beginning, on different paper, with different characters, even with a distinct pagination – that the readers knew and understood that those texts were not addressed to them, but were a necessary tribute offered to the censorship.[22] It happened that such texts were not even included into the summary. A similar technique was the usage of the so-called "locomotive" in reviews and newspapers: texts that could have problems were preceded by citations from the works of Ceauşescu. The tougher the text, the longer the "locomotive". Often there was no connection between the two, but the engine managed to pull the carriages after it. In exchange, they could also have some good texts. Especially when editing texts from the inter-war period (or earlier), one had to face the existence of certain taboo topics, or expressions. In such cases one possibility was to simply delete the expression, and thus one could hope that at least the rest of the text was saved (otherwise the censorship could have deleted the whole phrase, or paragraph, or even text).[23] The other alternative was to put all such texts, expressions, into the endnotes, since they were not seriously checked.[24]

Beside this arsenal of tricks, the book shows also some of the – curiously similar – counter-methods deployed by the power in manipulating the work and the opinions of personalities (first of all classics) that were, for some reason or other, considered to be important for the regime. Among them the most important were: the drastic, false reinterpretation of their opinions by publishing so-called "selected" works that presented a biased image, since they usually omitted major texts; leaving out certain phrases, paragraphs without mentioning it.[25]

A special case: critique aiming at education

As these examples show, the investigation of structural silence is not so easy methodologically. In their efforts to make sense of what was going on in regimes with restrictions on free speech, the attention of scholars has been mostly attracted by the official discourse, although – on the basis of the hypothesis proposed – its analysis is less fruitful than it seems. The reason for this lies on the one hand in a debatable view that equals political events with visible, so-called "major" events, leaders, politicians, etc.; on the other hand, in an epistemological double standard. Leo Strauss has shown that according to philological rules that are the mainstream in certain periods, one should not read between the lines, but confine him/herself to the explicit side of the text.[26] It should be added that usually this respect toward the text is not granted precisely to the dominant political rhetoric. On the contrary, it is often expected to hide at least as much as it shows. The result is that in neither case is the author's wish respected: the unorthodox would like to convey his/her message, but the interpreters do not find the methodological arguments to take it according to his/her wish; the orthodox rhetoric would like the interpreters to take the message prima facie, but these have good reasons for not doing so. Obviously, this difference is due to the fact that there can be no general standards for deciding, whether a philosopher's work, for example, is encrypted. Lessing's view that all philosophers of the antiquity had an exoteric and an esoteric teaching, to be found in the same works, lost its appeal.[27] Nowadays, this presupposition – once a philological standard – is marginal.

And nevertheless, continues Strauss, there are periods in which one knows that texts were written and read having a general common background and clues in mind. This is not the case in the modern period, due to a fundamental change in the social role of men of letters that took place around the middle of the 17th century.[28] Until then, it was considered that the gap between "wise men" and the "masses", as a basic element of human nature, could not be bridged with education. Consequently, wisdom could be handed over only to disciples, while hiding it from others. The moderns seem to have had a more optimistic view of human nature, considering that education is possible. Publication thus did not mean only a simple presentation of one's views to the readers, but education aiming at the elimination of persecution. Writing, publishing with an educational purpose was seen as a contribution to the enfranchisement of people.[29] A thorough description of this type of critique, its context, and results is given by Reinhart Koselleck.[30]

His hypothesis[31] is that the structure of Absolutism, rooted in the dichotomy of sovereign and subject, respectively between public and private morality, prevented the Enlightenment and the emancipation movement from seeing itself as a political phenomenon. Consequently, the Enlightenment became Utopian and even hypocritical because it saw itself excluded from political power sharing. And it succumbed to Utopian contradictions that could not be resolved in practice and prepared the way for the Terror and for dictatorship. He refines the argument by stating that it was only in certain countries (Central Europe, Germany, Spain, France, Italy) that a type of Absolutism appeared which created a special type of Enlightenment: this, while trying to evade censorship and other chicaneries, was directed against the Absolutist claims of the sovereign ruler. This could be done only by inventing "ways of camouflage and mystification as well as other indirectly operative modes of behaviour". This is how Rousseau described this indirect method of political critique:

Il tourne męme avec assez d'adresse en objections contre son propre systčme, les défauts ŕ relever dans celui du Régent; et sous le nom de réponses ŕ ses objections, il montroit sans danger et ses défauts et leur remčdes.[32]

This had two consequences, of which only one was foreseen. On the one hand, it obliged the Absolutist State to respond to these new pressures, and try to legitimate itself. This was only partly successful, since critical arguments remained outside the cabinets where actual political decisions were taken. As compensation, a progressive philosophy of history was elaborated, "which promised victory to the intellectual elite, but one gained without struggle and civil war." The unforeseen consequence was that camouflage and mystification pervaded the ideas of Enlightenment themselves.

The Absolutist State did emancipate the individuals morally, but also denied them public responsibility by restricting them to the private sphere. This inevitably led to a conflict with a State that subordinated morality to politics. And consequently, the State had to stand an endless moral trial. As a result of Enlightenment, after the dissolution of ständische societies, there is a pressure to justify politics and morals without being able to reconcile the two.[33]

What was the connection between the critique of the Absolutist State and its crisis?[34] The major problem was caused by the fact that while Enlightenment did conjure the crisis, it did not realise the political significance of its action: its activity was never grasped politically. The reason for this lies exactly in the type of "mystificatory" critique practised, which "caused the day's events to pale", due to the Utopian images of the future. Consequently, critique provoked a crisis of which it did not know.[35]

The last element of Enlightenment critique is the importance it renders to the planning of history. It becomes as important as mastering nature. This misconception is furthered by the technicist Absolutist State, which makes the alienation of morality from politics inevitable. But in the planning of history moral man, "a stranger to reality", considers the political domain as something that can only stand in his way, which should be eliminated. Politics is dissolved into Utopian constructs of the future.

Consequently, one can say that the major elements of the Enlightenment critique and the Absolutist State's crisis were the divorce of morality from politics; the individual's lack of power in the public sphere; these led to a philosophy of history that contained the moral, Utopian critique of both State and politics; the importance of technocratic thinking, which proposed an end to politics, and a change of individuals into "useful collaborators" of the new social order.[36] One can add to these another characteristic: a peculiar interest in creating a public suited for their utopian educational ideals.

This is not important in itself. The challenges Enlightenment faced produced mentalities, attitudes, and behavioural patterns that have survived the special circumstances of their appearance. The Enlightenment is not just our past, but a "present that has passed".[37] This approach gives one the possibility to find in Enlightenment not analogies, but elements of our present.

Hungarian ambivalent discourse in Romania

In the Hungarian language public sphere of the previous regime, ambivalent discourse was used at large as well, even if explicit utopias were not formulated. One can only deduce them from the critiques. The most common trick was to use certain keywords, symbols, to mention issues that by analogy could develop in the reader certain reactions. Usually they did not have to be explicated, since they were based on the common knowledge of the author and his/her presupposed public, concerning the problems of democracy, freedom, of the minority question, and to their presupposed connection. A relationship that was never (could not be) seriously developed, explicated in the public sphere, and this caused some problems after 1989.

The greatest representative of this type of discourse was without any doubt the philosopher György Bretter. For some time, he was followed by some of his students, but, by the second half of the 1980's, for some reason or other, high quality encoded texts became increasingly rare. In the following, three examples of pre-1989 ambivalent discourse will be presented, taken from very different areas, expressed in very dissimilar situations, and with very diverse messages and implied publics. Since the major problem in the case of utopias aiming at education is the creation of a public, the analyses will put a particular stress on the question whether and how the public was conceived.

1. Kányádi, or the lack of a public

The first example to be shown is peculiar not because of the depth of the analysis, or the virtuosity of encoding, but because of the place where it was published: Napsugár[38], the "Children's Review of the Young Pioneers' National Council". From 1987, the old poet Sándor Kányádi published his seemingly children's poems and stories here. One of the poems, for example, is entitled Don't Be Afraid[39]. It says approximately the following[40]: winter (i. e. Ceauşescu's rule) is coming to an end, the sun warms up, there is hope on the tips of the branches. There is still ice, but it slowly cracks. This still looks like a poem for children. But some look really odd in a journal for children up to 10 years of age. Autumn Encouragement[41] can be read as a lament on a minority on the verge of extinction due to a harsh regime and emigration.[42] We hear the last chimes of the bell on the mountain, there is no more reason for us to stay here. The forest is crying, all the animals run away, everything is frozen. But some animals and plants encourage us that we are not lost yet. In spring we will find our place here again.

This example sheds some light on another crucial aspect. Namely that in the last years before 1989 many authors put an ever stronger stress on the "oppositional" gesture. The number of those who emigrated or turned silent was increasing. There was also a public feeling, idea that the Hungarian intelligentsia in Romania "betrayed the Hungarians".[43] Those who decided to remain in Romania and go on writing had two choices: encrypt, or edit samizdats. As it has been argued, these choices had to be taken in opposition to the gestures of the power, since it was increasingly difficult to write about the surrounding reality, and consequently the intelligentsia resorted to gestures as well. This had an important impact on their relationship with the public. As Kányádi's example shows, one could be ready to give up even the hope of having, creating one's public. Ambivalent discourse, encrypted critical text in a journal intended for primary school pupils does not make much sense.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the activity of the first samizdat journal published in Romania.[44] Its first six issues were hardly circulated. They were produced in five copies. The editors showed them to only three or four people in Romania – nobody knows, how many readers this meant. From issue seven more copies were made but still, it came to be known to people first of all through the presentations of Radio Free Europe[45], and it was talked about in private circles only after that.[46] Again, this shows that its publication was not more than an (important!) gesture: toward themselves, toward the Democratic Opposition in Hungary (which helped them, and was considered to be an important part of the public), and a bit even toward the world. But a local reading public, its creation does not seem to have been a serious issue, goal. Since there is still no research on the topic of the public in the last pre-1989 years, the presentation of this example stops here. Anyhow, this approach can explain in a large measure the both ignorant and patronising contemporary attitude toward "(civil) society" taken by the intelligentsia.

On the other hand, it explains the effects of this samizdat, exemplary in their perversity. It was intended to be the heroic act of some young people, destined to show that "we" do not lag behind other, more brave people in Eastern Europe, that there are intellectual and moral efforts at demolishing the regime, that its efforts to hermetically seal off Transylvanian Hungarians from all the world is not successful, and that intelligent, meaningful opposition is possible even here. That there is still solidarity, idealism, heroism, trust and "we" can still say something to the world. And personal experience shows that this is how people understood the attempt of the editors. But the Securitate's operations for finding these people were large-scale, terrorising practically the whole Hungarian intelligentsia in Romania. The result achieved in the large population was not trust, solidarity, heroism, confidence, the sense of a meaningful existence in Romania, etc., but the opposite: fear, hysterical secretiveness, lack of trust, a mania of seeing collaborators of the Securitate in everybody, and a general feeling that one had to emigrate because life in this country was meaningless. Although Ellenpontok was seen as a sort of a victory, the general mood in (especially young) intellectual circles reached the bottom of despair, instead of the heights of confidence. Actually, the group of the editors itself disbanded, most of them lives now abroad, and there is quite some tension and ressentiment among its former members even today.

2. The party committee for supervising performances, or power as a public

On March the 3rd, 1983, the County Commission for Supervising Theatrical and Musical Performances (or of any other nature), came into being.[47] It had twenty members (according to the list presented in the first minute), including the propaganda secretary of the county, other party officials and propagandists, actors, journalists, teachers, workers. Its goal was to see, discuss, criticise all the performances that were to be presented in the county. This included the supervision of the programme of small bands that played at weddings, in discos, bars, etc. The directors, actors, musicians had to take into consideration all the critical remarks raised by this commission. No first performance could take place without its prior consent.

Ambivalent discourse can be seen first of all in the way the actors, the directors, or the authors tried to respond to criticisms, and this will be shown by using as an example the very first play supervised. The commission started its activity with a scandal. On the day it was constituted, it had to see and comment the final rehearsal of András Sütő's play, Pompás Gedeon[48]. The criticisms of the committee referred on the one hand to the religious elements to be found in the play. The fragments of religious music – according to an "advice" – had to be interrupted with jazz, so that they lose their continuity. The number of angels had to be drastically decreased, and the atheism of the youth had to be more militantly exposed. The scenes that took place in heaven should not have had any educational potential, the number of religious texts had to be limited (although normally the play used them satirically).

The most important part of the criticisms, however, referred to the appearance of national topics. A line of a Hungarian nationalist song sung by the (negative) main character, Gedeon – "Where are you, Székelys" – had to be omitted. As the party secretary for propaganda mentioned, it could make the public think of the next verse (that sounds "I gave you in custody a homeland (i. e. Transylvania) to take care of". References to "happy Austria" or Franz Josef also had to be eliminated. The director of the play and the author tried to explain that these elements were used to shed a negative light on the negative characters, criticise not only their approach to collectivisation, but also their nationalism. However, from his point of view, the party secretary was probably right: he did not express it, but it was obvious that under those circumstances, in the 1980's, the national values could maintain their expressive force even if expressed by the negative characters.[49] Or could even turn them into positive, or ambivalent ones. A public looking for criticism was not interested in the coherence of the play, it was looking for elements that could then be interpreted out of the context and the logic of the play according to its free will. This possibility had to be limited as much as possible. The propaganda secretary noticed that the interpretation of the author could contain a trick, and he eschewed it.

However, over the period of seven years while the commission existed, the most important conflict erupted within the commission itself. Criticisms could be directed against anything, not only ideological problems: the scenery, the clothing (no red boots please, "this can be interpreted"), the performance offered by the actors, and the play. This often brought about hilarious results: even in the case of classics like Shakespeare, Gogol, "interpretable" parts of the text had to be cut. The permission to present Antigone by Sophocles was given by saying that "the play is good, and it has already been presented many times". When commenting the performance of Gogol's Diary of a Madman, it was stressed by one of the members of the commission that the actor's dislike of the Czarist regime was clear. It would have been probably very unpleasant to mention the possibility that the actor saw the Czarist regime as an analogy to Ceauşescu's. (Actually, in the end the performance was prohibited.)

At a certain moment, some of the members of the commission tried to impose the idea that their duty was only an ideological supervision of the performance, abstaining from artistic criticisms, since none of them was a specialist (actor or director). This would have meant on the one hand that ideological criticism was irrelevant in the case of classics, and on the other hand that artistic activity would have become less restricted (making also possible the use of "tricks"). The reaction of the hard-liners was prompt: a document issued by the National Council for Socialist Culture and Education stipulated that the commission had the obligation to criticise and give advice from all possible points of view, including the artistic ones. However, several meetings were started by their opponents affirming that they had no right to appreciate the artistic achievement of the actors or of the director. They lost every time, since they could not offer counter-arguments to the problem of "interpretability". Elements of the performances had to disappear because they "could be interpreted" in a way not wanted by the party apparatus. Whenever in doubt, the question was "what would the spectators understand from the play?", "how would they interpret it?"

As time passed, the elements that "could be interpreted" grew in number and diversity. Colours (red), tones (dark or light), atmosphere (happy or sad), size, could become a problem. Slowly, a silent and fierce competition developed between the – voluntary or involuntary – critical allusions of the artists and the vigilance of the commission. Practically all the elements of a performance could become "dubious". And this is how aspirations for a total control actually brought about limitless possibilities for roundabout critique.

3. Baász, or the real public

From the end of the seventies, until around the middle of the eighties, Sepsiszentgyörgy was considered to be an unpleasant town during official holidays. After the action of a couple of school children who put some anti-Communist and nationalist posters in the streets in 1978 (in support of Károly Király), on May Day, or on the 23rd of August (Romania's national holiday before 1989), one could find Hungarian nationalist posters or handbills in the streets. A good occasion for the police (both secret and not) to be present in large numbers in any public place. The population of the town was convinced that it was a provocation, that the handbills were distributed by the Securitate, and obviously kept quiet.

In 1981, on the 60th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party, an exhibition of the county's artists was organised. For this occasion, the graphic artist Imre Baász conceived a complex work consisting of two parts.

One was an installation: there were on a rack six shirts stained with blood, and on the floor around them, and on the wall, there were handbills of two types. On the one hand, there were copies and originals of old leaflets from the inter-war period, calling for fight against the government, for Communism, etc. On the other hand, there were handbills announcing the opening of the exhibition. Baász documented himself on a special trip at the museum of the party's history in Bucharest, where he examined carefully, how the handbills of the illegal Communist activists looked like in the inter-war period.[50] Although the graphic structure was different, he kept on the first type of handbills the set phrase of the inter-war handbills: "read and pass it further".

The other part of the whole project was a performance.[51] On the eve of the anniversary, after midnight, Baász and three other friends started walking around the town sticking everywhere handbills inviting to the opening of the exhibition.[52] After a while they were caught by a frightened policeman, who immediately asked for a patrol, and reported at the headquarters that he found two people sticking manifestos in the street. Almost together with the patrol the chiefs of the county police and of the secret police appeared[53], Baász and his friends were taken to the police, where they were interrogated. To their complete bewilderment the police found out that the posters had no particular subversive message, and they were officially approved. The county's party secretary was woken up around three o'clock at night, he confirmed that he approved of the whole thing: the invitations to the exhibition had to be made public. Baász and his friends were set free.

For the atmosphere of those times, it should be added that after three o'clock at night, when he got home, Baász immediately called his wife (who was away), told her the whole story, and confessed that he feared that his joke would not get away unpunished: he could go even to jail. Nothing like that happened. On the contrary: the next day Baász was called to the police, where he was presented formal apologies.

In those days, Baász used to say that "it is not the existence of the work of art, but the method that became of primary importance".[54] As it has already been mentioned, for him the two pieces – the installation and the performance – were a unitary whole. The invitations to the exhibition functioned like the inter-war handbills: they were also part of the installation. The inter-war handbills were also stuck on the walls at night. The formal resemblance with the inter-war leaflets and night actions lead to a mixing of periods of time, frames of reference, enemies, goals, values, etc., into a new unitary whole.[55] The six white shirts also constitute a problem. They should symbolise moral cleanliness, stained with the blood of the victims. However, in those times the white shirt came to be part of a different context: the suit (usually dark), and the necktie. And these were already symbols of the "integrated" person, first of all the party officials and the secret police (somewhat like the leather coat in the fifties). The whole image could also be seen as officialdom stained with blood, in a context in which past and present fight and martyrdom against injustice merged.

Conclusions: ambivalent discourse and parrhesia

In conclusion one can say that the abstract, coherent moral rules canonised in different – theological, philosophical, etc. – systems are turned in everyday life into a soft, malleable set of norms, which may be taken and used according to circumstances. The situations, the actions, the actors may take on different meanings according to the context of the action or of the preceding or ensuing discussion. This allows for the avoidance of self-critical moral introspection that would make certain actions problematic, in favour of an acceptable personality that can be represented in both private and public interactions.

Ambivalent discourse – probably considered reprehensible by most moralists – has played, and will play an important role in two major spheres of everyday life. On the one hand, it creates, reproduces an acceptable and pragmatic image of oneself and the world. Ambivalent discourse has become constitutive of an acceptable, although "motley" personality, which receives its coherence not in abstract rationalisations, but in practical validity. On the other hand, it can seriously contribute to the management of everyday conflicts as well (including inter-ethnic ones), since ambivalent discourse "liberates" us from the exigencies of sincerity, of plain speech. In exchange, it offers a plurality of values, norms, interpretations, that can be chosen according to the context of action and the context when the respective action is re-told. This is how a personality develops that from the point of view of everyday life is both morally, and pragmatically coherent, acceptable, and meaningful. Coherence is achieved not by separating the public and private sphere, but by constantly reconciling them.

Ambivalent discourse makes it extremely difficult for an opinion leader public elite to create abstract communities that rest on common, coherent values that are assumed in public and consistently. Publics that are easy to convince about the correctness of long or short term social, political projects. One such project is nation building. Another one in Eastern Europe (but not only) is "transition". In this latter case one should face a strange situation: in many respects, the goals, values, norms of regime change, while legitimate for everyday people, are not valid.[56]

The problem of ambivalent discourse is not specific to Eastern Europe. From a moral point of view, the situation is similar to the conflict between sincerity and strategic games presented by Norbert Elias.[57] He treats the antithesis between 'superficiality' and 'depth', 'falsity' and 'honesty', 'outward politeness' and 'true virtue', all connected to the German antithesis between Zivilisation and Kultur, in the context of French versus German, aristocratic, respectively middle class mentality, and national consciousness. In a discussion between Goethe and Eckermann analysed by Elias, the following standpoints are presented. The latter, an adherent of middle-class values, argues in favour of a frank expression of personal values. Interaction is defined by personal likes and dislikes, by the similarity of the interlocutors' inner nature. Goethe, on the other hand, puts forward a typically aristocratic argument, based on reason, a result of a process of civilisation, opposed to anything like "nature". The tendency to take our nature as a guide is not sociable. Natural tendencies are opposed to education. One should not expect people to harmonise with us. Instead, one should converse with everybody, since 'with opposed natures one must take a grip on oneself if one is to get on with them.'

Such conflicting values can be generalised to any situation where differences in social standing, culture, mentality are part of the interaction. Should one give way to 'natural tendencies', including frankness, honesty, the selection of partners according to inner resemblances, like Eckermann? Or behave in a 'civilised' way, like Goethe: converse with all people, without expecting others to have ideas, values similar with ours.

Even more generally, a adapting a problem raised by Michel Foucault: what are the conditions of the possibility of truth-telling?[58] 

According to the presentation of Foucault, in Ancient Greece truth-telling was distinguished from a series of other types of discourses. First of all, it was in no way connected to (self-)doubt, a topic that appeared much later. Instead, it was associated with certain moral qualities. Knowing and speaking the truth was an ethical, not an epistemological problem. The proof of moral qualities was courage, involving a risk that was taken consciously. Parrhesiastic courage was a duty, it was not the result of some external coercion. The point was not to demonstrate the truth, but to be critical toward another and toward oneself.

Saying the truth also involved certain social requirements. First of all, the parrhesiastic game involved that both the truth-sayer and the target of criticism were free citizens. People outside the realm of freedom could not take part in this moral game. The second condition was connected to courage, duty and risk: saying the truth implied a position of inferiority. And last but not least, the parrhesiastic exercise brought about a valid result when the criticised person(s) entered the game, presented themselves as standing on the same moral platform, and accepted the criticisms wholeheartedly. Parrhesia was not a monologue (like in the case of rhetoric), but part of a dialogue.[59] In this respect, the practice of Athenian democracy that made open criticism difficult, or even impossible, shows that it was unable to enter the parrhesiastic game.

What can one say about Eastern European parrhesia? Since there is hardly any research in this field, one may attempt to raise some hypotheses taking the ancient Greek case as a comparative guide:

a. in everyday speech, saying the "truth" – just like in the Greek case – is not reflexive, it hardly shows (self-)doubt, i. e. it is not a problem of adequacy with reality. Consequently, Verdery's problem seems to miss the point.

b. "truth-telling" is considered to be a moral act, but one can often be moral by not saying the truth, or by saying only half of it. Consequently, 1. truth-telling is not always connected to "courage". "Courage" is not always connected to personal agency, the social context can make it impossible to be "courageous"; 2. truth-telling in Eastern Europe is not necessarily connected to criticism; 3. truth-saying is not connected to duty. The stress is not on courage, on criticism, on duty, responsibility, but on "pragmatism", on being a trickster who outwits the "partner".

c. while in ancient Greece truth-telling was connected to social standing, in our case it is more complicated. One can be (partly) critical, a truth-sayer, even in a position of superiority. Role distancing made possible a non-identification with a regime one is supposed to represent.

d. parrhesia is a question of dialogue. However, the rules of the game are much more complicated, involving an ambivalent character. On the one hand, dialogue can bring about exactly the avoidance of open criticism, of responsibility. On the other hand, it may also be a means by which the parrhesiatic game is forced out of the partner.


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[1] For the problem of enduring transition, see Szakolczai (2000).

[2] See Verdery (1992) and Verdery (1996), Chapter 4: Nationalism and National Sentiment in Postsocialist Romania, pp. 92–97.

[3] The following argument does not deal with another major problem raised by this analysis: namely that certain conflicts have a historical aspect, they took shape long before state socialism.

[4] Benn and Gaus Introduction, in Benn; Gaus (eds.) (1983).

[5] This topic cannot be discussed in detail here. On the problematic relationship between the public and the private sphere, how their categories change in time, see for example Benn – Gauss (eds.) (1983), Maier (ed.) (1987), Coontz (1988), Castiglione – Sharpe (eds.) (1995), Weintraub – Kumar (eds.) (1997).

[6] See on this issue Biró – Gagyi (1993).

[7] Verdery (1996), p. 96.

[8] On this see Goffman (1981).

[9] Burke (1993).

[10] In ancient rhetoric, the issue was discussed among others by Cicero ("reticentia"), or Celsus ("obticentia"). Quintilian called it aposiopesis. See Institutio oratorica, IX. 2, 54-57.

[11] Berger – Luckmann (1966), Burke (1993).

[12] See Tismăneanu (1992), and Bauman (1993). The latter says that Communism collapsed because the ruling elite lost belief in their order. And that society felt, observed this. One may add as a conclusion that this can explain the slackening of the zeal of the apparatus toward "converting" the population.

[13] A similar view can be found in Zygmunt Bauman. According to him, there were two axes on which intellectual life in communist regimes was plotted. On the one hand, there was a systemic and social integration, which drew intellectuals "into direct engagement and competition with political power". On the other hand, there was a regimentation of intellectual practices, and pressures to "assimilate centers of intellectual authority within the structure of officialdom." See Bauman (1992), p. 162. For the current, generally accepted view stressing on the regimentation, manipulation of society under socialism, see Tismăneanu (1992), for example on p. 283.

[14] Putting now aside unpalatable love stories between tractor drivers and milkmaids.

[15] Periods of "liberalisation" were usually linked to the change of the secretary general of the party. "Freedom" certainly had a cost: for example, the relaxation in the analysis of certain domains of the past (e. g. the fifties), turned away the energies from analysing other periods (like the present).

[16] There was a differentiation of people as well. Some were allowed to write on "hot" issues, while others were not. Being "courageous" meant not only to have "courage".

[17] Another pair of the opposition, dominant vs. popular, is problematic as well. If popular is everything outside dominant, could one call Havel a "popular author"? Just because he was certainly not "dominant" before 1989, at least?

[18] A famous example can be some of Mikhail M. Bakhtin's works written together with Valentin N. Voloshinov or Pavel N. Medvedev. See for example Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. A – this time literary – work written in the same vein seems to be Mikhail Sholohov's Quiet Flows the Don.

[19] For this, see some of György Bretter's works.

[20] Tóth (1997), pp. 66, 72.

[21] Tóth (1997), p. 57.

[22] Tóth (1997), p. 76.

[23] Tóth (1997), p. 86.

[24] Tóth (1997), pp. 164–165.

[25] Tóth (1997), pp. 123, 140–155.

[26] See Strauss (1952).

[27] See Strauss (1994), pp. 33–37. The distinction seems to originate in 17th century freemason teachings. It was presented in the so–called "double doctrine", according to which a religion might comprise an outer shell (the creed for the vulgar), and an esoteric inner truth (known only to the initiated). This approach, they thought, could help them in deciphering ancient wisdom. See Kidd, Colin (1998).

[28] Strauss (1994), pp. 40–42. Strauss uses the term "philosopher", but enlarging the category does not seem to contradict his intentions, and it is more appropriate for this discussion.

[29] Sándor Tóth's book on Gábor Gaál shows us another reason for reading a text as if it were encrypted: respect for a certain person, and understanding for her/his fear. It is shown that after 1948 Gaál practically wrote under constant menace. In Tóth's view, the texts produced under such circumstances do not reflect one's own ideas. If one is interested in what the author really wanted to communicate, then one should not look for the dogmatic views. But to the small, hidden elements showing his unique, individual character, by presupposing that the text was encrypted, that there were secret ideas introduced on purpose. See Tóth (1997), p. 56.

[30] Koselleck (1988)[first German edition 1959].

[31] Koselleck (1988), pp. 1–2.

[32] Rousseau: Oeuvres Complčtes, tome 93, p. 100ff. See Koselleck (1988), p. 68.

[33] Koselleck (1988), pp. 2–4.

[34] Koselleck (1988), pp. 9–12.

[35] One can add that the whole situation also led to a mental-structural inability to cope with practical responsibilities.

[36] This is shown by Koselleck in his description of the role of the free mason lodges (see p. 91).

[37] Koselleck (1988), p. 7.

[38] The title means sunray.

[39] Ne félj, in Napsugár, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, 1987, p. 9.

[40] From the point of view of literary criticism such a plain rendering of a poem is probably unorthodox, but on the one hand for the purpose of the present analysis it is enough, and on the other, this is how these poems were read. Literary virtues – if any – came second.

[41] Őszi biztató, in Napsugár, Vol. XXXI, No. 11, 1987, p. 9.

[42] Emigration – first of all to Hungary – became a wide–spread option in the 1980's, especially in intellectual circles.

[43] The idea was first of all spread by some intellectual circles in Hungary. See Szilágyi (1995), pp. 155–163.

[44] There were two samizdat journals in Romania. The most successful, Ellenpontok (Counterpoints), managed to have nine issues published between January 1981 and January 1983. It was edited by a group of young intellectuals. With one exception, they all emigrated after they had been caught by the Securitate. The second one – Kiáltó szó (meaning approximately "loud word") – had only two issues, and was edited by Sándor Balázs. It seems that in spite of some attempts, there were no Romanian samizdats.

[45] It seems Ellenpontok managed to raise a smaller dispute between the Hungarian and the Romanian department of Radio Free Europe. According to its internal regulations, each national section had to be concerned with its own country. One of the editors of Ellenpontok complained that due to this system nobody spoke of the Hungarian minority in Romania. As a result, the Hungarian samizdat, and generally the issue of the Hungarian minority was raised by both the Hungarian and the Romanian department.

[46] See Molnár (1993).

[47] The following presentation is based on the minutes taken at the meetings of the commission. At the moment, they are to be found in the archives of Kovászna County's Inspectorate for Culture. They are in an A4 format copy book with hard covers, having in total 200 (unnumbered) pages. The minutes take 66 pages, the rest of the pages being blank. It contains all the minutes taken between March the 3rd, 1983 and December the 15th, 1989. Unfortunately, here only some anecdotic details can be presented, throwing light on the issue discussed. The whole document would require a much more extensive analysis, since it can prove interesting and useful for several reasons. First, it can show the variation in intensity, topics, etc., of party criticism in time. Second, it shows this variation on a local level. In certain cases, this could be very different from the issues proposed from the centre. Third, connected to this, it shows that part of the local apparatus wanted a peaceful co–existence with the local intellectual elite. They were not offensive, they were polite, and took every occasion to flatter them. Fourth, they can show (especially since there are no visual traces of the performances) the attempts at breaking norms, and the fight over these norms.

[48] It can be translated approximately as Gedeon the Pompous. The author was already at that time considered to be a living classic of Hungarian literature. The play is an early one, written in the fifties, criticising "kulaks". It was probably chosen because: a. nobody could take seriously any more a play about collectivisation, so the message could not be distorted by the propagandistic atmosphere of the fifties; b. it made indirect criticism possible, through some parts of the text that were naive and inoffensive if taken literally. In the context of the 1980's they could also be seen as hidden criticisms of the regime or of its rhetoric. Or, in certain cases, as will be seen later, just as acts of bravado.

[49] And they were by far not really negative, since hardly anybody thought that kulaks were despicable people.

[50] In Romania, the Communist Party was banned between 1924–1945.

[51] The whole performance was told to me several people, among them Baász himself. There were no differences among the different versions.

[52] There are photos of this moment of the performance.

[53] One should not forget that it was on the eve of an extremely important anniversary, and the heads of these two institutions were directly responsible of what happened especially in that period.

[54] Chikán Bálint (é. n.), 36.

[55] While this type of game with the form was original, recourse to a symbol of power in order to "fight" it was not unique. See for example the case of Shostakovich, who said that the "Leningrad" symphony was not referring to the town under siege during the war, but to the distruction of old Leningrad and its people by Stalin. See his memoirs, in Shostakovich (1997).

[56] On the difference between legitimacy and validity, see Weber (1968), pp. 31-32.

[57] Elias (1978), pp. 29-34.

[58] See Foucault (1983).

[59] The distinction between dialogue and monologue shows strong resemblances with Mikhail Bakhtin's views. See Bakhtin [Bahtyin] (1986) and (2001).