ESR 1 Blog January/February 2023: Gabor Erlich

In recent weeks while working on a roundtable conversation together with seven FEINART researchers (which will appear in the fall issue of the FIELD journal), I began one of my answers by positing that we live in counter-revolutionary times. I think I was way too timid. The situation is harrowing.


On the 15th of January Gáspár Miklós Tamás passed away. He was a philosopher. To most, it wasn’t his wide-ranging and cardinal scholarly oeuvre that earned him his reputation, but rather his formative presence as a public intellectual, the public intellectual of the Eastern European Left  – although this is not to say that theoretical texts, such as ‘Telling the truth about class’, or ‘On Post-Fascism’, or ‘Communism on the Ruins of Socialism’, to name just a few, are of less importance than his more popular writing. They are invaluable contributions to international philosophical discussion and debate.


TGM’s (as everybody knew him) paramount feature was to participate in the everyday socio-political struggles through written commentary as well as with an always-empowering physical presence. He not only mastered the essay-form to a level that lifted his writing way above contemporary standards, but he was also one of the very few who showed solidarity with the subaltern and the oppressed on all occasions: marching together with often only a handful of young activists, and speaking often on ad-hoc stages supported variously by anti-imperialist/alter-glob circles, pro-Kurdish and Palestinian solidarity networks, the housing movement, human-rights NGOs at the time of their harassment, or groups of artists and cultural workers protesting against the Orbán-regime’s censorious cultural hegemony.


Born in Cluj/Kolozsvár into a family of communist revolutionaries and forced to leave his beloved hometown by Ceausescu’s regime in the late 1970’s, he arrived right into “the opposition circles of Budapest”, which remained ‘home in exile’ for most of his life. TGM was one of the key members of the ‘dissident intelligentsia’, protesting “real socialism”, which, he showed us, was in fact, “a very special case of state capitalism”. He got elected to the first democratic parliament and served four years (1990-1994) as an MP of the liberal party, “SZDSZ”. Crucial to my research on Eastern Europe, Tamás was able to escape the hurrah- shallow optimism of neoliberal system change – with the help of revolutionary Marxism. But he also didn’t avoid the work of personal evaluation, especially when it came to his role in the period of ‘transition’, for which he kept apologising. This mixture of radicalism and self-reflection was not a mainstream occurrence.


Personally, I first encountered his work that appeared on very small independent blogs, and sometimes in cultural weekly papers. I really didn’t understand much of what he was talking about, but I did grasp his main message: solidarity with those who cannot stand up for themselves. And I liked that message. So, I kept on reading his very dense essays over and over again, looking up the terms used, the names thrown around, and the plethora of historical/socio-political/economic references. Without even noticing, I was learning. Fortunately, this wasn’t a lonely activity, for practically all the young activists did the same, and we talked about these texts. Now, many years later I am still often reminded that there is a lot of catching-up still to do, and this is good.


TGM paid attention. He read virtually everything at the time of publication. And commented on most things, often in a biting fashion. At times I even felt that he was too scolding. Due to this attitude, he managed to correct numerous errors. It is harder to be a Leftist and easier to be(come) stupid now.


One thing he would be definitely be talking about today is the ferocious attack on so-called civil society in Georgia, where the governing Georgian Dream party is proposing a bill that would identify any NGO which receives more than twenty per cent of their annual budget from abroad, as a  ‘foreign agent’. I know this because TGM was one of the fiercest critics of the Orbán-regime’s ‘foreign agent law’ back in 2014, in pieces such as ‘The Last Offensive’, declaring that the groups/associations/institutions targeted by Orbán are in fact the “true opposition” in Hungary at a time when parliamentary politics have been reduced to a level that is even less than mere symbolism. Apart from telling the truth about the real struggle and hard work of these groups (such as ‘Women Against Domestic Abuse’, Migration Aid, climate activists, etc.), TGM also – as was often the case – challenged the widely echoed, yet rather superficial narrative, prevalent in recent Leftist discussions regarding the role of NGOs, as ‘the ngo-isation of culture’. Which hopefully will be the theme of my next entry when I shall provide some details on what is happening in Georgia right now and why we must pay attention to it (not only for the sake of understanding their struggle, but also as continuation of the challenge of critically understanding the new Europe through our ‘(semi)peripheral’ lenses).

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