I am just returning to normal life after some weeks in Hungary. Not that life in Hungary is abnormal. Indeed, when asked what conditions in Hungary are like I always reply: ‘Much as in England.’ I was told that there was less unemployment. On the other hand, prices have recently gone up more. But, in general, life in Hungary is much as in any West European country. One English visitor gave me a fearsome account of the Russian occupation, which he assured me was still at full strength. I can only report that during my visit I did not see a single Russian soldier and never met anyone who knew whether there were still any in Hungary. Certainly the American presence is more flagrant in England than the Russian presence is in Hungary. As to the Hungarians, they are more frightened of American nuclear missiles than of the Russian Army.
Vol. 5 No. 5 · 17 March 1983
SIR: The spectacle of left-wing academics visiting parts of the Soviet empire and returning to tell us that all is well is a familiar one, but not less disreputable for that. So A.J.P. Taylor (LRB, 17 February) assures us that Hungary is really just like England. Doubtless it is today one of the pleasantest parts of Eastern Europe in which to live, particularly for those of Mr Taylor’s class, partly as a result of its abandonment of Marxist economic practices. We may choose to forget that Mr Kadar was put where he is by Soviet arms, and that in the last resort these provide the only legitimacy his power possesses. Cum domino pax ista venit. We may choose to forget the thousands of Hungarians (many of them workers) who were eliminated after the Uprising – with some help from Mr Andropov. Mr Taylor of course never saw any Soviet soldiers (there are four divisions stationed in Hungary), and he claims that American troops are far more evident in this country. (He does not point out that Hungary strictly supports Soviet foreign policy, whereas the Falklands war, whatever he may think of it, does at least illustrate the point that Britain can act contrary to the wishes and interests of the US Administration.) Above all, Mr Taylor makes play with the happy and privileged position enjoyed by Hungarian academics; indeed this section of society has on the whole fared quite well, and the unfriendly might even say that they have to some extent been bought off: those workers who sought real freedom and equality were among those who chiefly suffered.
It so happens that I visited Greece under the Colonels, where I saw little army presence and no acts of repression, and even heard the virtues of the regime extolled by a friendly and well-fed peasant. None of this of course had the remotest relevance to the true situation of the country, and if I had reported back that all was well because I had seen nothing amiss, I would have been rightly excoriated. In an earlier Diary Mr Taylor praised Dr Johnson for his freedom from cant. I doubt whether the great Tory would have repaid the compliment, and can imagine his comment: ‘The fellow’s a vile Whig, sir, and there’s an end on’t.’
It so happens that in a letter in the same issue two academics remind us of the ‘positive’ qualities of Stalin’s rule. Certainly Russia did not disintegrate under Stalin, and Hitter was repelled (as Napoleon had been by the Tsar). But it remains odd to concede credit to a man responsible for the death of some fifteen million of his subjects, the peasant-slayer who instituted a bureaucracy that continues to repress the majority with matchless efficiency in a notable continuation of the class struggle. The point may be wearyingly familiar, but that does not make the facts go away. One can imagine how, had Hitler succeeded in establishing a lasting Reich, historians, often great worshippers of success, would compete in finding the ‘positive’ side of his achievements. When the Left finally and unequivocally condemns evil, its prescription for good will acquire more validity.
University of Sussex